New Benefits and Wage Increases for District Workers

The Numbers

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On July 1, 2020 the District became a better place to live, work, and raise a family. DC workers can now claim local paid leave benefits to attend to urgent family needs without having to worry about the loss of income. And the minimum wage in DC increased from $14 per hour to $15 per hour the same day—making it a bit easier for workers to take care of themselves and their families. These policies better ensure that workers have a better level of financial stability. We still have a long way to go to ensure the District can be a place where everyone succeeds, but this is welcome progress.

Paid Family Leave Benefit Payments Commence
The Universal Paid Leave Act, passed by the DC Council in 2016, grants eight weeks of parental leave for parents to be with their children, six weeks of family leave for workers to care for sick relatives, and two weeks of medical leave for workers to care for their own health needs. This limits our chances of having to make impossible choices between caring for the people we love and earning the money we need to survive.

Equity is built into part of our paid leave program. DC’s paid leave structure ensures that the lowest-wage workers benefit the most by replacing 90 percent of average weekly wages for those earning up to $22.50 per hour. The program accounts for workers who have more than one employer, capping a maximum weekly benefit at $1,000 per week for all workers. If you’re wondering how DC’s paid leave policy will benefit you, check out the paid leave benefit calculator on the Department of Employment Services site.

The recent coronavirus-induced economic downturn is a powerful reminder of the importance of worker security and protections. Paid family leave is a key tool to reduce worker stress and support their desire to prioritize family and personal health. For example, the paid family leave program will assist in reducing DC’s high rate of infant mortality, according to research by the DC Council Budget Office. It will help prevent the tragic reality that many new mothers have faced—being forced to return to work just days after childbirth because they couldn’t afford to take unpaid time off.

But overly restrictive and exclusionary final rules that the Executive has imposed means that fewer people will have access to the program. Some of these rules include requiring someone to be employed when applying for benefits (increasing the possibility of termination); limiting applying for benefits retroactively after sudden health emergencies; and cutting off end-of-life care for a loved one immediately upon their death. This undercuts the broader goals of the program and our collective well-being.

The DC Committee on Labor and Workforce Development hopes to eventually consider legislative expansions to program eligibility given these stringent regulations.

New Minimum Wage
DC’s lowest wage workers are also benefitting from a pay bump: DC’s minimum wage has increased from $14 per hour to $15 per hour for workers, no matter the size of their employer. The global health pandemic has led to a spike in immediate health and human service needs across the District, and this pay increase is needed now more than ever to keep families stable. The tipped minimum wage also increased—from $4.45 per hour to $5.00 per hour. Going forward, both minimum wage and the tipped minimum wage will increase to reflect inflation—a best practice—and help keep up with rising costs.

Initiative 77, approved by over 50 percent of DC voters in 2018, would have eliminated the tipped minimum wage, but the Council repealed it. As of the time of this writing, the Council is set to approve a  2021 fiscal year budget that fully funds the provisions of the repeal legislation, which includes requiring employers to streamline how they report tipped wages to mitigate wage theft and the launch of a public campaign to inform tipped workers on their rights. Fully funding of these initiatives would be a win for DC workers.

Due to centuries of structural racism and racist policies that restricted Black workers to the lowest paying jobs, the Black median household income in DC is $45,200 and has not changed over the past decade, despite a boom in economic growth up to the pandemic. Nearly half of all workers who are benefitting from a $15 minimum wage are Black, and another 24 percent are Latinx. Similarly, people of color disproportionately make up 70 percent of DC’s tipped workforce and are most benefitting from the tipped minimum wage increase. But these increases are not enough and will not close the deeply entrenched racial wealth gap in DC. A larger redistribution of resources, land, and other wealth building opportunities are needed to do so.

Given DC’s high cost of living, it is important for District leaders to continue to help workers with the lowest wages stay in DC. Residents need to earn $32.83 per hour to afford a two-bedroom rental home in DC—the fourth highest housing wage in the country, the National Low Income Housing Coalition estimates. And the ongoing pandemic will surely exacerbate the barriers that many of our low-income, longtime Washingtonian neighbors were already facing to stay in DC. While the $15 minimum wage is critical to ensuring a fair wage for the lowest-paid workers, DC leaders should take steps to increase it to a living wage—a more accurate pay rate needed for a household to afford housing, child care, food, health care, and other necessities. A living wage would be closer to $17.76 per hour for a worker with no children.

Resources for Workers 
DC government and our partners have a number of resources available for DC workers to learn more about their rights and the paid family leave program:

  • The DC Office of Paid Family Leave websiteincludes step-by-step instructions on how to apply for paid family leave benefits.
  • The DC Paid Family Leave campaign websiteprovides accessible eligibility and benefits information on the three types of DC paid family leave.
  • The First Shift Justice Project assists people with applying for paid family leave, appealing denials, or addressing retaliation.
  • DC Jobs with Justice frequently offers free Know Your Rights clinics for workers and employers to learn more about DC’s labor laws and worker rights.

Doni Crawford is a policy analyst at the DC Fiscal Policy Institute (www.dcfpi.org). DCFPI promotes budget and policy solutions to address DC’s economic and racial inequities and increase opportunities for residents to build a better future.