D.C. Family Leave Proposal Moves Forward, But Remains Controversial
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
One of the big issues we've been talking about on this program over the past year is paid family leave. That's when workers get paid time off to recover from a birth, to take care of a newborn or a sick family member or themselves. The U.S. is one of the few Western countries without some kind of paid leave, which is one reason it made such a splash when the daughter of then candidate, now President-elect Donald Trump pushed a paid leave proposal.
Earlier this year, we looked at a local proposal for paid leave here in Washington, D.C. As originally proposed, it would have been the most generous in the nation at 16 weeks. The proposal is moving forward with the local city council, but it remains controversial for many of the same reasons that such plans are moving slowly nationwide. Mainly they put a lot of pressure on small business.
To sort all this out for us, we invited back Councilmember Elissa Silverman, one of the proposal's authors, to give us an update. Welcome back. Thanks for coming.
ELISSA SILVERMAN: Great to be here, Michel.
MARTIN: We also have here with us in the studio restaurant owner Jonathan Cho. He's got two restaurants in Washington, D.C. - Sakuramen, and he's the co-owner of BUL Korean Restaurant.
JONATHAN CHO: That is correct.
MARTIN: All right. Thanks so much for joining us as well.
CHO: Thank you.
MARTIN: So first, Councilwoman, to you. The original proposal was 16 weeks. Now it's down to eight weeks for parental leave, six weeks for family leave, two weeks for self-care. And it's also taken a long time, it seems to me, to move this through the system. Is that true?
SILVERMAN: We've had a robust discussion about this bill, Michel. We've had three public hearings. I introduced the bill with my co-introducer, David Grosso, in October of 2015, and here we are in December of 2016 debating the bill. We've had a first vote. It passed 11 to 2. And we're on to our second vote and hopefully implementation soon.
MARTIN: Remind us again of how this is paid for.
SILVERMAN: This is paid for through an employer-based payroll tax. It's a .62 tax - so very modest. In terms of the business side, we have done a study in our council's budget office showing that in fact in California, where they've had a program for a dozen years - in New Jersey, in Rhode Island - in fact this can be a very pro-business bill because there are business benefits.
MARTIN: Jonathan, let's hear from you on this.
CHO: I think that any existing program, whether it's across this country or around the world, are at least partially if not fully funded by payroll deductions. And it's not solely upon the business. Now, here in D.C., here we have this - a very well-intentioned goal to try to implement a paid family leave program which I believe most people are certainly supportive in principle.
MARTIN: I was going to ask you that, though, because we didn't even get to that question - is, do you in principle think it's a good idea?
CHO: Absolutely, but there are also...
MARTIN: Wouldn't it be hard on you, though? I mean you're not a huge...
CHO: It will definitely be...
MARTIN: ...Business. I mean you're not, like, a big-box store...
CHO: No, we're not.
MARTIN: ...With hundreds of employees. How many do you have?
CHO: No, we're not. We have about close to 50 total between the two restaurants. That's both full-time and part-time.
MARTIN: So you would be covered by this.
CHO: Yes, absolutely.
CHO: I think the D.C. law would actually cover anyone no matter how many employees you have.
MARTIN: And you have to pay their entire salary for the entire period of leave.
CHO: D.C. - no - D.C. is up to a thousand-dollar cap. I believe it's per week, which is the highest in the country.
MARTIN: Elissa Silverman, (unintelligible) go back to this question because as my understanding is, as this bill was originally conceived, the original idea was that everybody would pay a little bit. Both workers and owners would pay a little bit. Wasn't that right?
SILVERMAN: So Michel, I want to - I hope that Jonathan will be enrolled in our problem and your listeners will be enrolled in our problem that we're not a state. Congress restricts our ability to tax income at its source, which means we can't tax commuters who live out of state and then work in our city, which is a majority of the workers in our city.
MARTIN: Well, that leads to the question, though, that the major paper in the Washington, D.C., area, The Washington Post, has suggested that that's part of the problem here - that you've got a benefit that is being paid for solely by district business people. But most of the people who would benefit don't live in the city. Is that, A, true? And is that fair?
SILVERMAN: I don't think it's fair because this is a pro-business bill.
MARTIN: But it's true.
SILVERMAN: Well, it helps district businesses in terms of lower costs because they're going to have lower employee turnover. That is a tremendous savings to businesses.
MARTIN: And how do you respond to that, Jonathan?
CHO: I already take very good care of my employees, and they're already well-incentivized through our regular compensation. The fact that D.C. has raised the minimum wage and it's going to be 15 - a full $15 - we've already made adjustments to try to accommodate that law.
Now we're being asked yet again to make adjustments. And to exactly your point, we can't tax Maryland and Virginia residents who work in D.C. - that somehow we're going to still force this law through on the backs of small businesses. You know what? They'll just make more assessments. Just by saying this is going to help businesses long-term does not make it true.
SILVERMAN: Every time we do something to benefit working families in our city - when we banned smoking, I heard that every restaurant was going to move to Virginia and, you know, the heart of tobacco country and Altria's headquarters.
Then when we raised the minimum wage, I heard that this was going to devastate businesses. Our economy is one of the strongest in the country and stronger than our neighbors. When we gave workers paid sick days - heard the same thing. Our economy continues to grow. So I can make a correlation saying, you know what? When we pass bills that actually help working families, our economy improves.
MARTIN: Jonathan, I gave Councilmember Silverman in the first word, so I'll give you the last word on this.
CHO: OK. When you present a very human situation at people who may encounter life situations, whether that's a baby or a sickness and so on, of course the human, natural, obvious reaction is society needs to do something that's going to help them.
But at the same time, I think that the D.C. Council - in their zeal to accomplish the very noble goal of delivering paid family leave, they've ultimately violated a fundamental principle of sustainable governance, which is, if you're trying to be socially responsible in your governing but if you do so in a fiscally irresponsible manner, it's going to be ultimately self-defeating and non-sustainable.
MARTIN: That's Jonathan Cho. He owns two restaurants in Washington, D.C. We also heard from D.C. Councilmember Elissa Silverman. Thank you both so much for talking with us.
SILVERMAN: Thank you, Michel.
CHO: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.