- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 11, 2016

More than 150 people packed themselves into a D.C. Council hearing Thursday night to voice support for a bill that would provide city workers with 12 weeks of paid family and medical leave, saying they would be forced to choose between their jobs and their families’ health without the legislation.

“There are a lot of single-parent families in the District,” said Patria Harrell, a mother and lifelong resident of Ward 8. “Paid family leave would make a really big difference for parents like me.”

Several business owners and business advocates attended the hearing to express their disapproval of the leave proposal, which would be funded by a 1 percent payroll tax to businesses.

“Because the true cost of program is unknown, so is the true cost to businesses,” said Kathy Hollinger, president of the Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington. “Restaurants are second-largest private employer in District, and a 1 percent payroll tax is more significant than it sounds.”

But the most numerous and vocal outcries came from backers of the leave plan. Single mothers, minority advocates and social workers all said paid leave is an important economic and health issue.

“I don’t want people to have to choose between the family they love and the job they need,” said Melanie Campbell, president of the National Coalition on Black Civic Participation.

According to Ms. Campbell, about 37 percent of D.C. families have a single woman as the sole breadwinner. She said those women need to be able to take care of their family or themselves when they get sick.

One business owner offered his support for the measure. Roger Horowitz, owner of Pleasant Pops, which sells coffee and homemade ice pops, said he provides his employees with health benefits and a living wage. He said that those perks have helped him build a strong workforce and that being able to offer paid leave would make his business even more attractive.

“A small business is a family. I want to provide paid leave but I can’t afford to,” Mr. Horowitz said, adding that he would gladly pay the 1 percent tax.

Still, Mayor Muriel Bowser expressed doubts this week that she could support the 12-week proposal, which has been scaled back for its original 16-week version.

At 12 weeks, it still would be the country’s most generous paid family leave policy. Other jurisdictions provide no more than six weeks of paid leave.

Although she backs paid maternity and paternity leave, Ms. Bowser said the proposal would allow “almost an unlimited number of occurrences” for workers to take paid leave for recovering from a medical condition or tending to an ill family member.

She said the council needs to show how a proposed 1 percent tax on workers’ wages would fund the plan.

Council Chairman Phil Mendelson, who cut the plan to 12 weeks on Monday, also reduced its maximum weekly benefit from $3,000 to $1,500 to make the plan more financially viable.

D.C. Chief Financial Officer Jeffrey DeWitt has said he will reserve judgment until the program’s budget is scored.

Business leaders say the leave plan would drive companies away from the District because of increased costs. The scaled-back bill was meant to address the cost issue by reducing the amount of time off workers could take and the amount of money they could collect.

Two estimates of the leave policy’s likely cost differ widely.

The Greater Washington Board of Trade reported that the original program could cost more than $700 million a year, causing a $200 million deficit.

But a federally funded report from the Institute for Women’s Policy Research said the original program could be fully funded with the 1 percent tax without causing a shortfall that would hurt other city services.

• Ryan M. McDermott can be reached at rmcdermott@washingtontimes.com.

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