CLASP Applauds DC Council’s Vote to Strengthen Paid Family Leave

By Nat Baldino

The DC Council has voted unanimously in support of the Fiscal Year 2022 Budget Support Act of 2021, which will significantly strengthen Washington, DC’s paid leave program. Since the passage of DC’s Universal Paid Leave Act (UPLA) in 2016 and its subsequent July 2020 rollout, thousands of workers have taken advantage of the program. However, access to paid leave—both in the District and nationally—is unequal, with Black and brown working families in DC facing disproportionate levels of need for leave and higher likelihoods of being unable to take it. With this vote, DC’s paid leave program will be more accessible than ever. 

Among the major changes coming to paid leave are expanded leave periods and greater access to leave. The Budget Support Act will increase personal medical leave—which allows workers to take time for their own serious illness—from two weeks to six weeks. In the future, DC will also join states like Washington, Oregon, and Colorado by gradually extending benefits to 12 weeks of each parental, family caregiving, and personal medical leave. Having the needed time to care for oneself and one’s family is critical to helping working families through medical troubles and can help prevent future illness. 

The legislation also expands access to leave through strengthening job protection and changing application requirements. Specifically, new provisions include:

  • Strengthening job protection. DC’s paid leave will now conform with the federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), ensuring that workers who take leave don’t have to risk their job to do so. Fear associated with a lack of job protection is one of the most common reasons workers don’t take leave
  • Retroactive benefits. Workers will now be able to apply for benefits retroactively, meaning that when crisis strikes, they can prioritize care and know they can still receive paid leave benefits. 
  • Removal of the 7-day waiting period. Workers will no longer have to wait for 7 days before accessing benefits, ensuring that working families get the aid they need when they need it. 
  • Expanded lookback period. In recognition of the high unemployment experienced by workers, which disproportionately impacts workers of color in DC, the program will include an expanded period of reported wages used to determine benefits for one year post-pandemic. This means that, rather than calculating wages based on the past 5 quarters, wages will now be calculated based on the highest 4 quarters of the past 10. This ensures that workers who lost income during the pandemic will receive the amount most closely tied to their actual cost of living prior to any pandemic-caused job loss. 

All of these changes, which will benefit the half-a-million workers employed in DC, will have a substantial impact on the large population of workers of color in the District. Workers of color made up more than 80 percent of those who applied for leave during the first six months of the program, and they are also the workers most disproportionately on the frontlines during the pandemic in jobs paying low wages. With these new provisions, DC’s paid leave can now be more accessible to the workers who need it most.