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Sherwood's Notebook: Paid Family Leave? Not So Fast

In October, advocates were cheering on the D.C. Council.

A majority of council members had introduced a bill requiring employers to grant 16 weeks of paid family leave to employees. Some thought the bill might be voted into law by year’s end.

Not going to happen.

On Monday, Council Chairman Phil Mendelson announced he would hold at least three hearings on the bill, including one in January and one in February. (The first hearing was set for Wednesday of this week.)

“There are a lot of issues with the paid leave act,” Mendelson told NBC4. “And we need to work our way through it.

Under the bill, almost every full and part-time worker would be eligible for paid time off to care for a newborn, an elderly relative or other family matter. It would be the most expansive family leave program in the nation.

Businesses, government and nonprofits have recoiled at the cost and disruption to their workforce management. The program would be paid by a 1 percent tax on employee earnings and would be run by the city government itself.

“If you’re a company that has 500 employees and one or two of them take leave,” Mendelson said, “that’s a very different scenario than if you’re a small business of eight employees and two of them take [paid] leave.”

Even at-large Council member David Grosso, the main sponsor of the bill, acknowledges the value of more hearings. And he suggested 16 weeks is not a number set in stone.

“Whether it is 16, 12, eight, we don’t know the perfect number,” he told us. “So how many people does it affect? How many businesses? What type of people? Are we going to be able to pay for it or not,” he said, rattling off unanswered questions.

Grosso said he has asked the city’s independent chief financial officer Jeffrey DeWitt to crunch the numbers on who might be affected. “I think there are a lot of moving parts in the legislation,” he said.

At the DC Chamber of Commerce, which has represented city businesses since the 1930s, they’re still wary of the bill even though it’s no longer on the fast track to a vote.

“We want people to be able to take care of their families,” said chamber CEO Harry Wingo. “We’re not against that. We’re against this bill. This bill goes too far, too fast and would hurt business in D.C.”

Mendelson, generally seen as a political progressive, says he has taken no firm position on the bill. But he told us on Monday that he was aware it could be anti-business. He said that if possible, he would seek legislation “that actually makes this affordable rather than just drives jobs away from the District.”

The Wednesday hearing this week was set to hear from invited experts in the field, on both sides of the paid family leave issue. The hearing in January likely will focus on government witnesses and how any such bill might legally be crafted. A third hearing in February would be open to the public for comments.

Mendelson said local governments like D.C. and the Maryland suburbs have had to act on employment issues because the badly divided Congress has not. It has been unable to amend the federal minimum wage of $7.25 despite widespread acknowledgement of the steep income gap in the nation.

“There’s frustration of no national solution,” Mendelson said of minimum wage, paid family leave, part-time work and other issues. “Instead of coming up with a national solution, the states are left to deal with each of these issues on their own.”

■ A program note. Mendelson will be the guest at noon this Friday on the WAMU 88.5 FM Kojo Nnamdi Politics Hour. Your Notebook will be asking some questions about this.

■ Presidential politics. This heavily Democratic town will host its Democratic presidential primary on June 14.

But what will the city’s lowly Republicans do?

The D.C. Republican Party plans to hold a citywide convention on March 12. This week, Donald Trump became the third GOP contender to qualify for the convention ballot. Candidates Ben Carson and Ted Cruz already have filed for the event. Local party spokesperson Patrick Mara says possibly 10 candidates will file.

The Notebook encourages every citizen to be an active voter, and we mean no disrespect by calling attention to the “lowly Republicans.”

It’s just that the latest voter registration statistics from the D.C. Board of Elections tell a clear story. There are 328,122 registered Democrats in the District, and only 26,597 Republicans. There are 71,736 voters who register as independents (known as “no party” in the District). To round out the numbers, there also are 3,505 Statehood-Green Party members, 844 Libertarians and 942 listed simply as “other.”

The Democratic Party number is not really as big as it seems. Many independents register in the majority party so they can have a say in the Democratic primary contests, which generally are decisive in city elections. Your humble Notebook is one of these. We’ve been registered in the Democratic column since the 1980s for exactly that reason, to vote in as many elections as possible. We welcome all candidates in all parties, or “no party.”

Tom Sherwood, a Southwest resident, is a political reporter for News 4.

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