By Martin Austermuhle
Advocates of the law say this could play out in a few ways. First, if a woman who has been working retail for a year leaves her job late in her pregnancy, she won’t have access to any of the paid leave benefits she accrued while working.
Or if someone works for a small business, they may not have any legal protections from being fired if they get pregnant or otherwise need to take leave. (D.C.’s version of the Family Medical Leave Act, or FMLA, only applies to employers with more than 20 workers. And even when it applies, an employee has to work for a year to benefit from the job protections.) Once they’ve been fired, they lose access to their paid leave benefits under D.C.’s new program.
“That’s the biggest bucket of workers I’m concerned about,” says Silverman. “It’s an uneven playing field.”
Silverman, who wrote a letter last September opposing a first draft of the regulations, says she wanted the paid leave benefits to be “portable” — they would follow workers no matter who they are working for or whether they are between jobs. That’s become an area of increasing interest across the country, especially with the rise of the gig economy and less overall job security and tenure.
But even supporters of portable benefits say they are a ways off, and the D.C. regulations are reasonable and broadly match the way benefits programs are managed across the country.
“I think it’s a sensible compromise because employers have to buy into these plans when they are responsible for funding them,” says Nicole Mason, president of the Institute for Women’s Policy Research. “But I would like states and cities to think about what portable benefits look like for workers. You could lose your job or be between jobs and still need access to those benefits. But that’s not the traditional way we have thought about benefits.”
Last year, Philadelphia implemented a paid leave program for domestic workers that is portable — workers who have met a certain threshold can claim their benefits even if they are between jobs. D.C.’s paid leave law does cover self-employed workers, though they have to pay their own contributions into the city’s fund.
Despite their concerns, advocates say there’s little they can do to change the city’s leave program for now.