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In D.C., Officials Eye A 16-Week Paid Leave Proposal


The question of work-life balance, indeed whether work life in America tolerates life outside work at all, has been a big issue for think tank researchers and activists for some time now. Now, a bill introduced by the Washington, D.C. city Council aims to put those ideas into action. If passed, just about all employers in the city would be required to offer 16 weeks paid time off to their workers. Employees could use the leave to recover from an illness, care for a newborn or adopted children or nurse a sick spouse or parent. It would be the most generous leave policy in the country. So we wanted to take a closer look at it from different perspectives. One of the sponsors of the measure is with us, D.C. Councilmember Elissa Silverman. Thank you for coming.

COUNCILMEMEBER ELISSA SILVERMAN: Thank you for the invitation, Michel.

MARTIN: D.C. Chamber of Commerce president and CEO, Harry Wingo, who is raising questions about it is also with us. Thank you, also, for coming.

HARRY WINGO: Thank you, Michel. It's great to be here.

MARTIN: So Councilmember, to set the table, most workers are entitled to unpaid leave in this country. That's the norm, and so they have job security, but they don't get paid. What makes this difference is that this is paid - completely paid if you make 52,000 a year or less, and it's a sliding scale as you move up the income chain. How exactly would this work, especially, how is this paid for?

SILVERMAN: So it would work by having employers and, in some cases, residents pay into the fund. And it would entitle them, as you said, up to 16 weeks of paid leave. This is America catching up with the rest of the world, and the rest of the world - almost every country in the world has some type of paid leave, which allows people to take care of their families at the most critical time.

MARTIN: I get that the logic of it. I think most people do, but let's focus on how it actually works. So if you are an employer - let's say you run a dry cleaner, and you have three employees, and one of them needs to take maternity leave. Who's playing that salary while that person's on leave?

SILVERMAN: If you work for a business in the district, then your employer will pay. If you are a reverse commuter, then you will pay into the fund yourself. And the biggest issue for small businesses is how to compete - competing for the best employees. This will allow them to do that because it will be a universal fund, and it will make it cheaper and more efficient for them to offer the same type of benefit that, let's say, a Hilton hotel or a Google can offer.

MARTIN: Harry Wingo, what do you say about that?

WINGO: I say that this bill, while we care about employees being able to care for their families, this goes too far too fast.

MARTIN: Why do you say that?

WINGO: Because this is more than double any other type of paid leave that we have in the United States. The average is five weeks. This would be 16 weeks. Also, it's unfairly completely on the backs employers in Washington, D.C., of whom we need many more than we have. It's going to hurt small businesses.

MARTIN: Well, Councilmember, let me ask about that point. The criticism that business owners have is that the people drafting these kinds of bills, you know, from the president on down, are thoughtful people, they mean well, but they've never met a private-sector payroll. Is there any sort validity to the idea that perhaps better evangelists would be people who have?

SILVERMAN: Their employers who are writing into me cheering this on, saying that this is great. I want to offer this benefit to my employees. I think this is a great benefit to large and small businesses and is going to help our economy because we're going to attract the best and the brightest to our city.

MARTIN: Many people say that when the federal government fails to act, states and localities have the duty to act; that they are the laboratories for change in that regard. Mr. Wingo, to that point, isn't it fitting that an entity like the District of Columbia take this up, at least as an experiment?

WINGO: I don't think we should be experimenting with jobs and with the economy of the District in a way that's too far and too fast. My concern is that this ignores that this a one percent tax, and the reason that we have had some job increases is that we have been working hard to get in a better fiscal position. For example, we've reduced the taxes on businesses. But the one percent tax that this would increase would negate any benefits, including to the middle class in Washington, D.C. And so don't get me wrong, I think it's the right time to talk about how we could improve any problems that exist. But to do twice as much as what's being done anywhere else in the nation and trying to catch up with the rest of the world and ignoring local impacts is the wrong approach.

MARTIN: That's D.C. City Councilmember Elissa Silverman and D.C. Chamber of Commerce president and CEO, Harry Wingo. They were both here with us in our Washington, D.C. studios. Thank you both so much.

SILVERMAN: Thank you.

WINGO: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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