When I was about seven months pregnant, I attended a town hall-style event by my then-employer. Someone of importance took to the podium to explain to the rest of us why paid parental leave was overrated. As he framed it, paid parental leave was a form of discrimination against everyone else. After all, an employer could be paying for all kinds of things for all kinds of people. Why, of all things, parental leave for a few? A newish twist to an old plot, perhaps, but you may have heard the basic story before: why should we pay for your baby?
Of course, if you took the “why should I pay for you” argument to its logical conclusion, no one would pay for anything that they don’t immediately derive direct value from – schools, parks, roads, public transport, wars. Thanks to this kind of regressive reasoning, there continues to be no federally-mandated paid parental leave law in the US, despite its many, many documented benefits (e.g., healthier, happier children and parents, immediate economic relief for new parents, greater workforce participation and earnings for women in the longer-term, greater gender equity, yada yada yada). In the absence of federal laws, its been up to states or individual employers in the US to provide this benefit to their residents and employees. But only a handful of states and individual employers choose to do so.
As it turned out, I was one of the lucky ones. My old employer eventually succumbed to popular demand for more discrimination of the paid parental leave kind and upgraded its paid leave package to something respectable (if not excessively generous). I also had the good fortune of having healthy pregnancies, deliveries and newborns. Although I would have loved to have more generous paid parental leave, I was able to patch together close to 4-month maternity leaves after the birth of each of my children with some combination of paid leave, saved-up vacation time, and a few weeks of unpaid leave. By the time my leave was over, I was ready to go back to work.
But that’s not everyone’s story. Many don’t have employers that provide any paid parental leave, and they cannot afford to forego their wage for more than a few weeks. Others may be able to take some unpaid leave, but it requires significant sacrifices. Many families face difficult healthcare situations after childbirth that require extended periods of leave. Some employees do not even have job protection if they take leave after the birth of a child, let alone paid parental leave.
D.C.’s Universal Paid Leave Amendment Act
So when, in December 2016, the D.C. Council (D.C.’s legislative body) approved – in a 9-4 vote – one of the most generous paid leave laws in the country, D.C.’s overwhelmingly progressive residents did a collective happy dance. It was certainly one of my proudest moments as a longtime D.C. resident. Formally called the Universal Paid Leave Amendment Act, it promises eight weeks of leave to new parents (both mothers and fathers). But it does not stop there. In addition to paid leave for new parents, it also offers six weeks to those caring for a seriously ill family member, and two weeks for personal sick leave.
As with many paid leave policies, the biggest fight over the D.C. Paid Leave Act was over the form of enforcement and funding. In the version that was passed by the D.C. Council in December, the proposed funding took the form of a public insurance plan. This meant that the D.C. government was to be in charge of administering and enforcing the program, the funds for which would be collected via an increase in employer payroll taxes (this is similar in design to other paid leave programs in the US and around the world). Small businesses, which find it particularly hard to weather the financial risks of having to pay for long absences by employees, would benefit from the insurance provided by the payroll tax-funded scheme. A study by the D.C. Budget Office found that the additional tax on employers would have minimal negative impact on the local economy over the next 10 years in terms of employment and GDP.
The proposal had its opponents too. At the last minute, business groups and their allies on the D.C. Council pushed for an alternate plan that called for an “employer mandate” instead of a payroll tax-based public insurance scheme. Under this alternative policy, all D.C. businesses would have to offer leave to their employees (the “mandate”) and pay the cost of it in-house. Small businesses that found it hard to incur this cost could apply for a tax credit from the city.
But a majority on the D.C. Council rejected the employer mandate, citing its many loopholes. For instance, it was not clear how the “mandate” on employers would be enforced. What if employers denied employees the mandated amount of paid leave? Or retaliated against employees if they insisted on receiving paid leave? Could employers avoid the mandate by discriminating based on gender and wage in hiring? How much exposure to financial risk would smaller businesses have under the mandate?
The bill then went over to D.C.’s mayor, Muriel Bowser, who signaled her own reservations about the bill by returning it to the Council without signing it (among her reasons were the tax burden on businesses and the bureaucratic burden on the D.C. government of having to administer the program). But the bill had enough support on the Council to survive without Bowser’s explicit approval. So on it went to Congress for review. Following congressional review, D.C.’s Universal Paid Leave Amendment Act became effective April 7, 2017.
Not Done Yet
A law is a law is a law, right? That’s what you might think. Thinking that this was a done deal, I was pretty surprised when, just a few weeks ago, the D.C.-based women’s advocacy group of which I am a member received a call for help from other D.C. Paid Leave activists. Like me, many thought that the fight for paid leave in D.C. was over, but owing to continued opposition from some business interests, a few people on the D.C. Council were having second thoughts about the design of the paid leave law. At issue again was the financing and administration of the program. The employer mandate was back on the table and some were contemplating alternative hybrid versions of financing the law.
Fearing a long delay and possible setbacks in the future, the immediate goal for D.C. Paid Leave activists was to lobby the D.C. Council to allocate the funds necessary to implement the law. Because the implementation of the law, as originally conceived, requires administration by the D.C. government and financing through a social insurance scheme, the initial set-up costs are fairly large (some estimate it to be close to $40 million). Without the appropriate funds allocated to get the process started, delays in its implementation are inevitable.
Lobbying the D.C. Council
I joined D.C. Paid Leave advocates in some of their D.C. Council lobbying efforts. “Lobbying” may sound like a scary word to those who have never done it before. Or perhaps just dirty and dingy, involving men in black suits, briefcases, cigars, and smoke-filled rooms. It is none of those. Instead, lobbying with activists involves a few hours of hanging out with some highly committed and experienced advocates and community organizers (and a few everyday people like me). On a given lobbying day, you may have a scheduled meeting with one of the Council member’s staff. Alternatively, you could just make unannounced visits to different Council member’s offices. Or some combination of both. Before dropping in on a Council member’s office, its helpful to learn about his or her position on the legislation (an experienced advocate will be happy to walk you through the details). Depending on the length of the meeting, the size of the group, and the particular issues involved, you may say a few words at the meeting to explain your position as a tax-paying D.C. resident or just show up as part of a larger group to demonstrate your support.
For someone unfamiliar with the process of grassroots advocacy, there are many reasons to do it. For one, you meet incredible activists, advocates and organizers whom you may not have the opportunity to meet otherwise (given my immediate professional and social circle, I certainly would not have). You also learn very specific details of local policies, their effects on people, and the positions of individual legislators on policies that are hard to get from public sources. Think of it as a hands-on mini-course in local politics.
But for me, what perhaps left the biggest impact was listening to the personal stories that I would otherwise never hear – at least, not first-hand – about how policies impact people. For instance, during one of my lobbying days, I met Diana, who was by now an experienced activist for the Paid Family Leave movement. During our visits to various Council member’s offices, she told her harrowing story: 24 weeks into her first and otherwise normal, healthy pregnancy, she went into labor. Born very, very premature, her newborn son faced numerous survival and health challenges. For weeks, Diana and her husband did not know whether he would live. Her son spent months in NICU before he could even breathe on his own. By this time, Diana had used up the four weeks of paid leave that her employer provided and all of her unused vacation and sick leave. Fortunately, her son is now a happy 5 year old, but his recovery process was long and expensive. Diana and her husband deferred student loans, sold their car, and racked up significant credit card debt.
The most remarkable thing about Diana is that she took her own personal ordeal – one that most of us cannot even imagine having to endure – and turned it into a cause for action. She was aware that while her own employer was accommodating, not everyone had the same job protection. She spoke of the weeks she spent in the NICU sitting at the bedside of her son. But often, she found herself alone. There were 20 babies in NICU but many of the other caregivers were not around. They had no choice but to be back at work. When activists first began to organize around the D.C. Paid Family Leave Act, Diana enlisted to help. And now she is back again to remind the D.C. Council why this law matters. The eight weeks of paid leave, while certainly not sufficient to wholly address her specific situation, would have helped her family and others like them significantly.
Another woman whom I met on one of my lobbying trips recounted how she, on her first trip out to a coffee shop with her 6-week old baby, ended up chatting with a server. When the server noted that she had a newborn of the same age, the woman realized that the server was already back at work, while she herself was still struggling through the early stages of her maternity break. She then found out that the server had already been back at work for 4 weeks (i.e., two weeks after giving birth), a scenario that seemed unimaginably challenging.
Other people have told stories or offered formal testimonies of the hardships they faced when a close family member fell gravely ill. Many such stories are available here.
In my world, during discussions about policy, people tend to morph into data points very quickly. You may learn that a policy will benefit thirty thousand people (and that’s important for policymakers), but what you don’t hear often enough is the hardship that the policy’s absence causes to the thirty, forty or hundred people that need the policy the most.
There are several ways to get involved in the D.C. Paid Family movement: you can visit the website to learn more. You can like or follow it on social media (this will also keep you informed about the latest news and efforts on this front). You can learn more about your Council Member’s position on the law and tweet at him or her in support of D.C. Paid Leave. If you have a story to tell, you can sign up to lobby or testify before the D.C. Council.