Advocates seek medical leave for D.C. workers

Advocates for Washington’s paid family leave bill gather during a lobbying day for the D.C. Council. Photo by Daniel Schere
Advocates for Washington’s paid family leave bill gather during a lobbying day for the D.C. Council.
Photo by Daniel Schere

As the D.C. Council considers one of the longest paid family leave measures in the country, some Jewish backers of the bill say they’re dissatisfied because the proposed law omits a key component — personal medical leave.

The bill, which the council is considering this month, includes 11 weeks of paid parental leave and eight weeks of paid time off for family caregiving. It applies only to people who work for private employers in the District of Columbia and to self-employed residents, who can opt in. Federal employees are exempt, as are residents who commute to Virginia and Maryland for work.

Four states have paid leave programs that are financed through employer contributions.

The District’s program, however, would differ in that it would be funded entirely through payroll taxes. This has prompted opposition from big businesses due to the payroll tax increase they would incur, but small businesses like Grassroots Gourmet bakery in the city’s Bloomingdale neighborhood could benefit in other ways.

Sara Fatell, the bakery’s owner, has been advocating for paid family leave for the past year. Unlike corporate chains such as Panera, her bakery can’t afford to offer benefits like paid time off.

“Me as a little bitty bakery with a small operating budget, it’s pretty hard to do that, and it makes it hard for my staff and the bakery to keep running,” she said.

Fatell, who is Jewish, said that without a personal medical leave section included in the bill, an injury to one of her employees could be devastating. She can’t afford to pay employees when they are not working, and replacing them would be a very “time consuming and expensive process.” She testified before the council in February along with 300 other small business owners who were in a similar situation. For those in the restaurant industry, she said, paid medical leave could mean the difference between getting by and being in dire straits.

“You’re a server and you break your foot and you have to be off your feet for eight weeks. You’ve lost your job, and a lot of those folks are living paycheck to paycheck anyway,” she said. “So now they lost their job, they don’t have a paycheck, they get behind on the rent and now they have a slew of other problems that come with it. So it’s a very quick spiral that happens from one incident. Maybe they were slipping on the ice on the way to work — because we all work on snow days.”

Jews United for Justice has been one of a number of groups involved in the grassroots lobbying for paid family leave in the city, and last week visited the offices of all 13 council members in an attempt to convince them of the importance of adding personal medical leave to the legislation. The week was “crazy but really productive,” said JUFJ campaign manager Joanna Blotner.

Blotner said she recognizes that the bill is complex but hopes people can understand why personal medical leave is essential for lifting up the disadvantaged. It is also an issue that is personal to her.

“As a single person, my family is myself for the most part,” she said. “If I get sick, if I have an accident of some kind I don’t know what I would do. I don’t know how I would pay my bills. I don’t really have financial savings to make that work, and so for a lot of people that’s their real situation.

People are living paycheck to paycheck — even as middle-income families in the city — and a medical crisis can really turn their world upside down.”

Among those lobbying with JUFJ last Friday was Carol Joyner, the director of the Labor Project for Working Families. She said she hopes Washington’s bill, if it becomes law, will set a national standard.

Asked if she would compromise by giving up a few weeks of parental leave in exchange for including personal medical leave in the bill, Joyner said she was open to the possibility.

“I think that D.C. has a good track record of being able to go back in and fix bills that don’t meet all of the requirements they originally intended,” she said. “And so, if there were a situation where there were only eight weeks of parental leave and four weeks of family leave and four weeks of medical leave I think we would be very happy with that, because it means that we’re not excluding a whole population of people in the District who really need care.”

Just before press time, the council voted on a new version of the bill, including personal medical leave. It still needs to pass a final vote on Dec. 20.

The amended version of the bill would provide workers with eight weeks of parental leave, six weeks of family medical leave and two weeks of personal medical leave.

Supporters must also convince Mayor Muriel Bowser to support the bill. Bowser, who has veto power, has said she is hesitant to pass the bill quickly.

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