DC lawmakers to vote on generous paid family leave benefits next week

WASHINGTON (AP) -- Everyone who works in the nation's capital would be eligible for the most generous family leave benefit in the nation -- up to 11 weeks of paid leave for the birth or adoption of a child -- under a bill that District of Columbia lawmakers will vote on next week.

While four states guarantee paid family leave, the District's program would be the first in the nation to be funded entirely by a payroll tax on businesses. California, New Jersey and Rhode Island fund their leave programs either partially or entirely through employee contributions, and New York state will do the same when its program takes effect in 2018.

The D.C. Council has been debating paid family leave for more than a year. The final details were released Monday by Democratic Council Chairman Phil Mendelson, eight days before the first of two council votes that are required for it to become law.

"This is the right thing to do because the United States is behind the rest of the Western world in offering these kinds of benefits to families," Mendelson told The Associated Press. He noted that both presidential candidates supported some form of family leave.

The bill, which offers a less generous benefit than the council initially proposed, would be paid for by a 0.62 percent payroll tax on businesses. In addition to 11 weeks of leave for either parent welcoming a new baby, adoption or foster placement, it would provide eight weeks of paid leave to care for a sick relative. Workers would receive up to 90 percent of their salary, with the benefit capped at $1,000 per week.

The bill is expected to pass the council easily. Barring a mayoral veto, it would be sent to Congress for approval, like all laws in the District. It could run into opposition there, with Republicans controlling both houses of Congress and the presidency. It's extremely rare for Congress to pass a resolution invalidating a District law. Congress more often blocks city policy in other ways, usually through amendments to spending bills.

President-elect Donald Trump has advocated six weeks of paid leave, and he proposed paying for it by eliminating waste and fraud from the federal unemployment insurance program. Hillary Clinton called for 12 weeks of paid leave, funded by a tax increase on the wealthy.

"There's nothing to gain by blocking this bill, politically," Mendelson said.

Mayor Muriel Bowser has not taken a position on the bill and has criticized Mendelson for developing it in secret. The mayor, also a Democrat, has voiced concerns about the bill's costs, its effect on the business community and the fact that most of those eligible for the benefits would be Maryland and Virginia residents.

"If we are going to raise a quarter of a billion dollars in new taxes each year, then D.C. families should be the primary beneficiaries," the mayor's spokesman, Kevin Harris, said in a statement.

Business leaders remain opposed to the proposal, arguing that the liberal and increasingly labor-friendly council is placing undue burdens on employers. Mark Lee, executive director of the D.C. Nightlife Hospitality Association, said bars and restaurants would have to lay off workers to afford the new tax.

"There's nobody on the D.C. Council who has ever signed the front of a paycheck, and they have no clue about the challenges that local, small businesses confront as a result of their actions," Lee said. "Quite honestly, most of the time we don't think they even care."

But independent council member David Grosso said he spoke to many business owners who supported paid family leave, particularly if the payroll tax could be lower than 1 percent, which was initially proposed.


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