DC Passes Nation’s Most Progressive Paid Family and Medical Leave Law

By Zoe Ziliak Michel

“Sometimes life doesn’t go as you planned!” writes Lindsay, a Washington, DC resident who has been diagnosed with two autoimmune disorders and will someday need a liver transplant. “Every single day, I worry that I will financially ruin my family because of my health problems.” But with the passage of a new paid family and medical leave law in DC today, some of Lindsay’s fears can be relieved.

Thanks to the long-time support of Chairman Phil Mendelson and others, the Washington, DC council voted today to begin building the nation’s most progressive paid family and medical leave (PFML) insurance program. The DC Paid Family Leave Coalition hopes Mayor Muriel Bowser will take quick action to sign the bill. Under the new program, estimated to take effect in 2019, private-sector workers will be able to get paid while taking time to bond with a new child, care for an ill or injured loved one, or recover from a serious medical condition. The District of Columbia joins the states of California, Rhode Island, New Jersey, and New York in granting their workers this protection. While DC’s program adopts many of the features that have made the other states’ programs successful, it increases support for low-income families by providing a higher rate of wage replacement.

The wage replacement system to be implemented in DC will be the most responsive of any in the country to the needs of low-income workers. Those who earn less than about $47,000 per year will receive 90 percent of their regular pay while on leave. Those who earn more will receive wage replacement on a sliding scale, with the replacement capped at $1,000 per week. For example, someone who works full-time at $15 per hour, normally earning $600 per week, would receive $540 per week while on paid leave. This formula reflects growing understanding that low-income people will still forego paid leave if the wage replacement is too low to live on; such findings recently led California lawmakers to pass a law increasing the level of wage replacement from 55 percent to 70 percent for the state’s lower-income workers.  DC’s 90 percent wage replacement will be a lifesaver for low-income workers who might otherwise be unable to afford to take the paid leave guaranteed under the new law.

DC’s program, to be funded through an employer payroll tax of 0.62 percent, will be the nation’s first made-from-scratch medical leave program since 1969. The four states with family leave insurance all built their programs’ infrastructure onto decades-old state temporary disability insurance (TDI) programs (i.e., programs that provide paid medical leave but no family leave). Unlike DC, those states were able to use administrative agencies and processes already in place, expanding them to cover paid family leave. DC’s process in developing its own system can inform other states without TDI programs, such as Connecticut and Massachusetts, where policymakers are currently considering paid family leave legislation.

Thanks to the leadership of Jews United for Justice, the DC Paid Family Leave Coalition, and countless workers and volunteers who stepped up to support the campaign, DC is leading on leave. The new paid family and medical leave program will help thousands of workers care for themselves and their family without sacrificing their income. The program will be a great source of support for low-income workers in our nation’s capital and will give some hope to patients like Lindsay. She says, “With [PFML], I hope that both I and my family can make it through the next few years intact.”