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Washington, D.C., Council Proposal Sets New Standard On Paid Family Leave


We hear a lot that the U.S. is behind other countries when it comes to paid maternity and paternity leave. People in Germany get 14 weeks. In Bangladesh, it's 16. In Cuba, it's 18 weeks. All at full pay. Martin Austermuhle, of member station WAMU, reports that city council members in Washington, D.C., are proposing that workers get 16 weeks of paid family leave.

MARTIN AUSTERMUHLE, BYLINE: Rob Keithan became a dad last month when his daughter was born seven weeks early. But for all the joy of becoming a parent, he says he's now adapting to the reality of being a parent.

ROB KEITHAN: Neither my wife or I have any paid leave. She works for a small business that has great, great people, but a small business, and doesn't have any kind of paid leave program. And I'm an independent consultant. So I don't get work, I don't get paid.

AUSTERMUHLE: Keithan says he and his wife were forced to save up so they could afford to take time off with their new daughter. And they're not alone, says Vicki Shabo, of the National Partnership for Women and Families.

VICKI SHABO: Only 13 percent of workers nationwide have access to paid family leave. Just 40 percent have access to temporary disability insurance. And only 60 percent of workers - 61 percent of workers - have access even to a single paid sick day.

AUSTERMUHLE: Shabo says only California, New Jersey and Rhode Island have paid leave laws on the books, but they could soon be joined by Washington, D.C., where this week a bill was introduced in the city council that would give workers like Keithan and his wife a full 16 weeks of leave, all of it paid. David Grosso is a member of the D.C. Council and wrote the paid leave bill. He says the bill would require all employers to pay a percentage of each employee's salary into a fund run by the city.

DAVID GROSSO: Higher-paid employees you pay up to 1 percent, lower-paid employees you pay as little as 0.2 percent. And then that money goes into the fund where the fund then gets paid out people who are out on leave.

AUSTERMUHLE: But that the cost would fall largely on employers has sparked opposition from business leaders like Harry Wingo of the D.C. Chamber of Commerce.

HARRY WINGO: You know, our concerns is that this would go further than any other type of legislation in the nation, and in a bad way. The burden would be completely on employers. So this would be employer funded, and in fact, employees would not be contributing as they do in other systems.

AUSTERMUHLE: Business owners also say that operating costs have steadily increased as the D.C. Council has passed new laws like mandatory paid sick leave and a higher minimum wage. Barney Shapiro says that cuts into the bottom line at the trash hauling company he owns.

BARNEY SHAPIRO: In theory, we all want better lives for our workers - at least I do. But you have to also take into consideration we still have to make money.

AUSTERMUHLE: But Grosso, the D.C. Council member, thinks the city's skeptical businesses should look at paid leave in a different light.

GROSSO: So you're going to be able to retain employees. You're going to be able to attract good employees. You're going to have employees coming back to work happy. They're going to be more productive.

AUSTERMUHLE: The paid leave bill still faces two votes in the council, but a majority of council members say they already support it. For NPR News, I'm Martin Austermuhle in Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Martin Austermuhle is a reporter in WAMU’s newsroom. He covers politics, development, education, social issues, and crime, among other things. Austermuhle joined the WAMU staff in April 2013 as a web producer and reporter. Prior to that, he served as editor-in-chief for He has written for the Washington City Paper, Washington Diplomat and other publications.