In crafting legislation, D.C. lawmakers are looking west — to the West Coast, that is.
From minimum wage to paid family leave to assisted suicide, the D.C. Council increasingly is modeling its legislation on laws in progressive jurisdictions in California, Oregon and Washington state.
The most recent example: The council is set to give final approval to a bill that would bar landlords from automatically denying housing to ex-convicts, mirroring programs in California cities.
The Fair Criminal Record Screening for Housing Act would preclude a landlord from asking for an applicant’s criminal history before making a conditional housing offer. It follows “ban the box” employment legislation the District enacted in 2014 that prohibits an employer from asking for an applicant’s criminal records until after a job offer is made.
A council report on the bill found that about 10 percent of D.C. residents have a criminal record, and that about 8,000 residents return to the city from prison each year.
As it has in many of its legislative actions this session, the District would be one of the few jurisdictions to enact such a law. Currently, Los Angeles and San Francisco have similar measures in place.
That conforms to the trend of the D.C. Council seeking guidance from progressive cities and states, starting this summer with its approval of a $15-an-hour minimum wage and ending with the passage in December of the most generous paid leave bill in the country.
For Ari Schwartz, an organizer with D.C. Jobs with Justice, it isn’t about a specific agenda but taking care of the city’s most vulnerable residents.
“With the cost of living as high as it is and poverty being as persistent, and more and more longtime residents being pushed out, the council has to make its priority to address that inequality gap,” Mr. Schwartz said. “Until those huge problems in our city are being fixed, I think it needs to remain the council’s approach.”
That the District is looking to San Francisco and Seattle, as well as New York City, for guidance makes sense, Mr. Schwartz said, because all of those cities share a pair of common traits — a skyrocketing cost of living and a thriving economy.
As those cities attract more business and rent continues to rise, those at the bottom of the income spectrum get pushed aside, he said.
“All we’re saying is that, as the city becomes more affluent, we can do a better job of everybody sharing in that growth,” he said. “It’s not surprising to see D.C. mentioned in the same breath as those cities. Our perspective is that it’s not working out for workers who can’t afford to live here.”
In June the council advanced its minimum wage legislation to establish an incremental increase over four years until 2020, when the hourly minimum wage — currently at $11.50 — reaches $15. The minimum wage for tipped workers will grow to $5 per hour by 2022.
The District joins several other U.S. cities, including Seattle and Los Angeles, that are gradually increasing the minimum wage to $15 an hour. San Francisco will be the first when its hourly minimum rises to $15 on July 1, 2018.
The council became the sixth jurisdiction in the country to pass a law that would allow terminally ill residents to seek life-ending drugs from their doctor under certain conditions. The measure was modeled after Oregon’s 1997 law — the first in the nation.
And the biggest battle came a few weeks ago, when the council approved, over the objections of Mayor Muriel Bowser and several council members, the most comprehensive paid family leave plan in the country — and the only one funding completely via an employer payroll tax.
California, New Jersey, Rhode Island and New York have some form of paid family leave financed via a tax on earners’ wages rather than employers’ payrolls. The only city to enact a paid leave program: San Francisco.
Not every item on the D.C. Council’s wish list has made it through, however. One measure was axed this year as a concession to businesses, which have said labor-friendly legislation is thinning their profit margins.
In September, with more than 100 workers protesting outside City Hall, the council voted to table a bill that would force some businesses to provide employee schedules weeks in advance, assuring that it would need to be reintroduced in January to be considered again during the next legislative session.
But that could be difficult as Council Chairman Phil Mendelson, in rallying support for the paid leave bill, said he’d offer businesses a two-year moratorium on pro-labor legislation as a way to ease the burden of the other measures.
But the gesture to the business community from Mr. Mendelson is largely toothless as the chairman couldn’t block other council members from introducing such legislation.
Mr. Schwartz said it’s always worrisome when a legislator decides to stop moving measures to help residents thrive in the city, but that it wouldn’t deter his group.
“The statement … isn’t going to stop us from pushing the council to do more,” he said.