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Paid family leave movement follows gay rights playbook, bypasses Congress

DC council members introduced a paid family leave bill that would create the most progressive system in the country and serve as a model for other cities that might be interested in paid leave.DC council members introduced a paid family leave bill that would create the most progressive system in the country and serve as a model for other cities that might be interested in paid leave.
Dozens of parents with toddlers sat through a DC Council hearing to show support for a paid family leave bill at the John A. Wilson Building in Washington, DCPhotograph by The Washington Post/Getty Images

Washington, D.C.’s city council has recently proposed the most generous paid family leave policy in the country, yet another sign that local and state governments are bypassing Congress and taking the lead in the movement to give working parents time with their newborn children.

This week, the District of Columbia’s City Council introduced a measure to provide paid family leave to almost every worker in the district. If the majority-supported measure passes, D.C. would become the fourth state (or, sorry D.C., quasi-state) in the country to give all workers—regardless of the generosity of their employers—paid time off to bond with a new child or address a family medical emergency.

The measure also promises to offer the most amount of paid time off in the U.S. While California, Rhode Island, and New Jersey offer between four to six paid weeks off with at least partial pay replacement, the D.C. measure promises 16 weeks.

Just across the National Mall, Congress is considering a similar measure, called the Family and Medical Insurance Leave (FAMILY) Act, which would provide 12 weeks of family-related leave with partial pay replacement. The bill has received widespread support from Democrats, private companies, and even business school professors.

Perhaps the most vocal advocate of the measure has been the executive branch, where President Obama has made improving Americans’ work-life balance a key talking point. In his State of the Union Address in January, Obama called paid family leave an “economic necessity.” Despite the support, though, the FAMILY Act is unlikely to come out alive from a gridlocked Congress, where it has languished for years.

The D.C. City Council’s proposed legislation is part of a growing movement to advance paid family leave without the help of Congress, by legislating state-by-state. “This past year, in part because of heightened momentum and the emphasis that Obama has put on paid leave, we’ve seen 17 states propose legislation based on this issue,” says Vicki Shabo, vice president at the National Partnership for Women & Families. Paid family leave programs similar to those passed in California, Rhode Island, and New Jersey are on the agenda in more than 20 states, she says.

The interest in paid family leave legislation across states is partially thanks to the Department of Labor, which has been the Obama administration’s cheerleader for paid family leave since last year. In September 2014, the department distributed half a million dollars in grants to four states to work on paid family leave feasibility studies. D.C. was one of those beneficiaries, receiving almost $100,000 to develop the measure. Montana, Rhode Island, and Massachusetts also received funding to develop or expand paid family leave programs. And last week, the Department of Labor announced its second round of grants, this year totaling $1.55 million going to eight different municipalities and states: California, Montgomery County, New Hampshire, New York City, Rhode Island, Tennessee, Vermont and Washington. “Having the Department of Labor give money to this area really starts the conversation,” says Jeff Hayes, study director at the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, which provided technical assistance to D.C. to develop its proposal. In the coming year, he says he will be working with at least four other states on similar projects.

Paid family leave is seen by many advocates as a necessary extension of the 1993 Family Medical Leave Act, which only protects employees’ right to take 12 weeks of unpaid leave. Few can afford to go so long without pay. In fact, 10% of those who take advantage of FMLA end up turning to public assistance programs to make ends meet.

The private sector has picked up some of the slack, especially as work-life balance issues have gained increased public attention. At the same time, only a little more than 12% of private-sector workers have access to paid family leave through their employers, and the beneficiaries tend to be well-off employees of cushy companies like Netflix and Facebook. The most vulnerable tend to be those who are neither wealthy enough to take advantage of FMLA nor given generous leave benefits by their employers.

Under the paid family leave policies that currently exist in three states–and in the proposed policy in D.C–small payroll deductions go toward a self-sustaining fund that is used to finance the leave. Workers who take advantage of the policy can receive a certain portion of their income each week, depending on the individual state policy. So far, studies of those states’ programs have yielded positive findings. California, which started offering paid family leave benefits in 2004, had received 1.7 million leave claims in total by February of this year, 1.5 million of which were from new parents seeking to spend time with their children. A 2011 study by the Center for Economic and Policy Research found that, despite initial fears, the “vast majority of employers reported that it has had minimal impact on their business operations.”

It’s not clear that paid family leave could sweep across state legislatures with the same force as gay marriage legalization, but the state-by-state approach taken by gay rights activists has highlighted to advocates that levers of change exist outside of Congress. D.C.’s proposed paid family leave measure is not an outlier, but an indication of a groundswell. “The D.C. bill is especially interesting because it’s always been a leader,” says Shabo. “As D.C. goes, so goes the nation—maybe?”