New Paid Leave Program Brings Economic and Racial Justice to D.C. Workers

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July 1st marked an important milestone for workers in the District of Columbia. That’s the day that D.C.’s new Paid Family Leave (PFL) program became the law.

When our fathers received devastating diagnoses — Alzheimer’s and Guillain-Barre Syndrome — a few years back, we were both left scrambling. But now, the District paid leave program will bring a huge dose of relief to all workers who, like us, were forced to show up for work when they were seriously ill or leave a seriously ill family member alone or in the hospital because they couldn’t afford to take the time off.

D.C.’s new Paid Family Leave (PFL) program will partially replace workers’ wages when they take a short term leave from their job to care for themselves, their ill family members, or a new child; leaves are paid up to two weeks, six weeks, and eight weeks, respectively. The funds for the benefit come from a small tax on employers, but workers apply to the District’s Office of Paid Family Leave for the benefit.

D.C. is now the sixth ‘state’ in the nation to implement a paid leave insurance program for its workforce. At the time, it was the first to pass a law with equity intentionally written into the law with benefits that proportionally pay out more to those with the greatest need, setting off a national equity trend in local paid leave laws.

Traditionally, employer-provided paid leave programs reach only a small percentage of workers. In the United States, only 18 percent of private sector workers currently have access to paid family leave. It’s worse for the lowest wage workers — only 5 percent have access — meaning more than 95 percent have no paid family or medical leave to care for their own health or for a seriously ill loved one without jeopardizing their economic security. And, in D.C, where low-paying jobs are held almost exclusively by people of color, this means that the lack of access to paid leave has disproportionately harmed Black and brown working families. The District’s new paid leave program helps to level the playing field and ensure all workers can afford to be there to care.

The current COVID-19 pandemic has further highlighted another important aspect of the need for paid family and medical leave. Not only does paid leave ensure people can heal and care for loved ones when dealing with a serious illness, it can also help prevent the spread of the contagion. An emergency federal paid leave program was created in response to the pandemic, however, more than 106 million workers nationwide were left out. Many of these workers are “essential” or “frontline” workers, including grocery and food service workers and delivery drivers. Again, most of these frontline workers in D.C. are Black and urgently need and deserve paid leave protections to create safe and just working conditions.

How the District implements, promotes, and executes new leave policies really matters going forward. In the immediate term, workers and communities need to know about the new paid family leave benefit program and federal COVID-related paid leave law. This includes robust outreach and education in multiple languages and using many different mediums and messengers, including health care providers, employers, other D.C. government agencies, unions, community-based organizations, and more. With public outreach only just beginning, the government’s paid leave PR campaign must be deployed equitably so that workers of color, low-income workers, and immigrant communities know it is available and can use it to bond, heal, and care without the fear of economic distress. (And, bonus, a strong PR campaign that centers racial equity can also help keep D.C. families healthy and safe as more people return to work!)

As the nation and the District reckon with the destructive impacts of systemic and structural racism, spotlighted by the COVID-19 pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movement, D.C. has an opportunity to further use an equity framework to ensure communities who have been traditionally excluded from important work and family supports can actually benefit.

D.C. has a chance to model how equity in policy works and begin to right old wrongs. By celebrating and promoting paid leave as an important achievement for the cause of labor and economic justice, the District can also help to advance racial justice.

Joanna Blotner is the D.C. Legislative Director for Family and Economic Security Campaigns, Jews United For Justice (JUFJ) and Pronita Gupta is the Director of Job Quality at the Center for Law and Social Policy (CLASP).

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CLASP

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A national nonpartisan organization dedicated to public policies that strengthen families and create pathways to education and work

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