Testimony to DC Council on Paid Family Leave

quote about importance of paid family leave

Testimony to DC Council on Paid Family Leave | Kimberly Perry, Executive Director, DC Action for Children

The COVID-19 pandemic reinforces the need for inclusive, accessible health programs. Fortunately, the District is almost ready to launch a new program that will help. 

DC’s new Universal Paid Leave Program is slated to launch July 1. Many of us in the advocacy community have been working toward this moment since 2015. In a month, residents from across the District will be able to take paid time away from work to connect with their new born child, or care for themselves and their loved ones when serious illness or injury strikes. As COVID-19 has sadly demonstrated, we need this now more than ever. 

We’re all vulnerable in this pandemic — but not equally. While African Americans are 46% of the District’s population, 75% of those who have died from coronavirus in DC are Black, despite only making up 46% of the people who have tested positive. Further, another 11% of our residents who have died are Latinx and 2% are Asian, meaning nearly everyone the virus has killed has been a person of color. 

Parents who work in grocery stores, pharmacies, cleaning services and caregiving are at an exponentially higher risk for exposure, as are their families. The District is home to more than 47,000 front-line workers, most of whom are women and people of color. Yet our essential workers are also chronically underpaid and denied lifesaving benefits like paid leave. This is not new: Black and Brown communities have historically been denied decent pay, benefits and health care. As a result, our residents of color have more chronic conditions, get sicker and die at disproportionate rates from many illnesses, including COVID-19.

We won’t undo generations of inequity with one program, but paid leave is a critical step forward. 

And yet, the Chamber of Commerce, Federal City Council and other local big-business leaders have spent millions lobbying against the Universal Paid Leave program through years of public debate. Even after the policy became law, they continued demanding revisions and delays. Meanwhile, small-business owners, advocates, public health and early childhood experts, and working people across the District pleaded for a common-sense program that could help all of us stay healthy and financially stable. 

The program helps businesses stay afloat, too: Its only cost to employers is a 0.62% payroll tax. That’s about $6 a week to cover an employee who earns $50,000 a year. Businesses would spend far more for a private insurance program, or to pay employees out of pocket during leave. The District wide program means that employers, especially small businesses, can plan ahead and incur no additional costs when their staff need time away from the job. And yet the big-business owners and developers claim the economic devastation of the pandemic means we should delay this program.

The District does face real financial challenges and is facing them head-on. However, Mayor Bowser was right to recognize it would be shortsighted and dangerous to balance our budget by cutting a program that helps all of us stay safe and healthy. Hundreds of people in the District have died from a terrible new disease, and across the nation millions more have been plunged into joblessness. As the District plans to reopen workplaces and businesses, it’s critical for public safety that sick people can stay home and get care. 

No one should be forced to choose between their job and their health. If anything, let’s find ways to expand programs that support small businesses, working families and vulnerable communities. At the very least, no one should debate cutting a lifeline in the middle of a pandemic.