Advocates of a paid family leave bill in the Wilson Building in December 2016.
Conversations about paid family leave tend to focus on time off to recover from the birth of a child, or for parents to bond with their new addition. It's not often talked about in terms of clearing a way to provide end-of-life care.
But that's exactly the issue Andrew El-Kadi faced earlier this year. He had no idea his mother's health would quickly deteriorate when he moved her to the District from California. After a fast-moving pancreatic cancer diagnosis, she died before a home health aid could even be assigned to the family through Medicaid.
But the city's new paid universal leave family helped El-Kadi be with his mom until the very end.
"People often think caregiving is just, you know, feeding your family member who's sick or making sure they can get to the bathroom and things like that," he said recently. "But the reality is it's a lot of coordinating their medical care and making sure insurance claims are paid, making sure their insurance stuff is filed correctly. It's overwhelming."
El-Kadi was able to take advantage of a new D.C. law that began providing paid family leave July 1. The District paid more than 1,300 claims as of August, including 45 claims for people in situations like El-Kadi's.
When El-Kadi knew he would need extended time off through the Family Medical Leave Act from his job as a technologist at American University, human resources alerted him to the new paid leave policy as a possibility. (AU holds the license for DCist's parent company, WAMU.) The program provides six weeks of paid leave for eligible workers caring for a sick family member — in addition to eight weeks of paid parental leave and two weeks for personal medical issues. El-Kadi learned he was eligible for up to $1,000 per week with the new paid leave program to care for his mother, and was incredibly relieved.
"When you're already so stressed out trying to handle a parent with deteriorating health, it's incredibly difficult," El-Kadi said. "And to lose your income at the same time would be devastating." About 75% of D.C. workers became eligible when the program launched, even if they live in Maryland or Virginia. An online portal was developed so residents can find information and apply for the program.
El-Kadi said for someone who works in tech, he found the portal to be confusing at times and wonders if others who may not be technologically savvy might struggle. But a city employee was available to answer his questions when El-Kadi realized he filed something incorrectly. The employee empathized with El-Kadi's situation and told him the office would take care of the conflicting claims.
"They said, 'This is a difficult time, don't worry about it, we have everything we need,'" El-Kadi said. "'And we'll sort out the claims.' And that's what they did, which was really helpful. Getting somebody on the line really helped."
The program was a long time coming for D.C. The bill was introduced in 2015 and went through 15 months of debate and revisions before the D.C. Council passed a scaled-back version.
Several advocacy and labor groups supported the law, including D.C. Jobs for Justice, a coalition of labor and community organizations focused on economic justice for vulnerable workers. Executive director Elizabeth Falcon told WAMU/DCist that paid family leave has been essential during the pandemic.
"It's so important that when our families change," Falcon said, "whether that's from having a child, when there's a medical condition that requires acute attention, that we're able to take care of our families, without a severe economic cost to those who need to do that caretaking."
Despite its wide support among residents, the paid leave program has become an issue in every At-Large D.C. Council election since the bill was introduced. This year, former council member and outgoing CEO of the D.C. Chamber of Commerce Vincent Orange made the program's cost to the city and benefit eligibility a campaign issue.
In an opinion piece published in The D.C. Line, Orange used his family as an example of why he doesn't support the program. "Is it fair that my 36-year-old son — who lives here, pays taxes here and has a 3-year-old daughter here — is one of those 94,000 DC residents excluded from eligibility for DC UPL benefits because he works outside the city?" Orange asked.
El-Kadi says that having access to paid leave was life-changing, and says something about what the city and its residents value, regardless of where workers live. El-Kadi and his partner have decided to stay in the District long-term as they make plans to start their family, citing the leave program as a major incentive.
"To have a caregiver in the house would have cost the kind of money that would have required me to continue working," El-Kadi says. "Those were six additional weeks I got to spend with my mom. And while they were very difficult, I could never have those back."
Currently, only California, Rhode Island, New Jersey and New York require employers to offer paid leave. Colorado could join them after voters approved a measure on the ballot this week that would require employers to provide 12 weeks of paid time off for childbirth and family emergencies.
Though the paid family leave program is available for different caregiving scenarios, the majority of claims from July to August were for parental leave. Zachary Israel and his wife Juliana welcomed their son Elliot in February. The paid leave program is retroactive for qualifying events back to July of last year, and it gave Israel the opportunity to receive benefits to care for his new son. He applied for the benefit at 9:00 a.m. on July 1 and received a financial determination of his benefit that same day.
Israel works for the Ferguson Group, a bipartisan lobbying organization which only offered one week of paternity leave. Israel says the change inspired his employer to alter its policy and cover the remaining gap between the city's benefit and his current salary. El-Kadi's employer American University also enhanced its parental leave policy in July to cover any gap in salary. It now allows staff to use accrued leave to supplement the D.C. benefit to 100% of pay to care for an ill family member for up to 10 weeks.
Beneficiaries receive their pay directly from D.C. and can choose direct deposit or get mailed a prepaid debit card. Israel said his one complaint was that despite applying for direct deposit, his first payment came in the form of a prepaid card which he nearly threw in the trash because it wasn't clearly labeled. He said he was told by the agency that the first payment is always made this way.
Still, the paid family leave program encouraged Israel to take extended time off of work to bond with his new son. As societal norms shift around defining caregiving, Israel said the program goes a long way to signal that it's OK for men to miss work and take on the emotional labor of caregiving.
"If you're thinking twice about taking the time off to be with your new child, or take care of yourself or a family member, it's definitely worth it," Israel said. "I think I'm a better dad now, and I have a much closer relationship with my son and understand him a lot better than I otherwise would have."