Early Lessons from D.C.’s Paid Leave Program
By Nat Baldino and Rocio Perez
Nearly all workers will face a serious illness or caregiving need for themselves or a loved one at some point in their lives. Yet, despite clear evidence of the need for paid family and medical leave, only 23 percent of workers in the United States have access to it.¹ Further, lacking access to paid leave is often a result of discriminatory policies and systems. This, in turns, leads to people of color, immigrant workers, and women being over-represented in low-paying jobs that don’t provide benefits.²
After decades of activism, District of Columbia policymakers passed the D.C. Universal Paid Leave Amendment Act (UPLA) in 2016. It allowed D.C. to follow in the footsteps of California, New Jersey, Rhode Island, and New York in establishing a paid family and medical leave program. The fifth paid leave program in the country, D.C. has since been followed by Washington, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Oregon, Colorado, Delaware, and Maryland—with the latter four having yet to begin distributing benefits. D.C.’s program began collecting premiums in July 2019, and workers became eligible for leave benefits in July 2020, four months into the global COVID-19 pandemic.
In D.C., take-up rates for paid leave’s first 18 months were spread unevenly among the population of workers and across the wards of the city, which are highly segregated across race and income. Black residents make up the largest demographic of the District (46 percent) yet claims among Black and white workers were comparable—around 7,000 claims each. Additionally, workers in wards with the highest density of white workers saw significantly lower denial rates than workers in predominantly Black wards.
To achieve equity, paid leave must be available to all workers and effectively implemented. Lessons from states operating paid family and medical leave programs show that equity-focused implementation of paid leave programs must be grounded in the needs of those historically marginalized or most in need of the policy; continuously evaluated and refined to ensure it meets workers’ needs; and shaped and improved by those most impacted by the policy.³ Education and outreach, as well as ease of information technology (IT) systems, are all critical to ensure a broad reach of programs.⁴
With these lessons in mind, this brief evaluates the rollout of Washington, D.C.’s paid leave program based on available data and interviews with community-based organizations. This report highlights the barriers to access and equity in D.C.’s program, particularly for those being paid low wages, as well as the D.C. government’s efforts to improve the program. We highlight the need for an implementation process built on a strong equity framework, which centers the workers who are least likely to be able to access the program.
1. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, National Compensation Survey, “Employee Benefits Survey, Table 31. Leave benefits: Access, civilian workers, March 2021,” available at https://www.bls.gov/ncs/ebs/benefits/2021/employee-benefits-in-the-united-states-march-2021.pdf.
2. . Adewale Maye and Asha Banerjee. The Struggles of Low-Wage Work. The Center for Law and Social Policy, June 2021. https://www.clasp.org/sites/default/files/publications/2021/06/CLASP_struggleslowwagework2021_factsheet.pdf.
3. Pronita Gupta, Michael Vorgetts and Gayle Goldin, Equity Matters: Lessons for Paid Family and Medical Leave, CLASP, 2021. https://www.clasp.org/sites/default/files/publications/2021/06/2021_Equity%20Matters%20%28003%29.pdf.
4. Equity Matters, 7.