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D.C. Restaurant Workers Win Legally-Mandated Paid Leave. Here’s Why That Matters.

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The program could be a model for businesses nationwide

Restaurant workers Shutterstock

The United States is notoriously the only major industrialized country without paid parental leave, and it’s unclear whether that might change over the next four years. President elect Donald Trump has expressed support for rectifying that ignominy, but his plan, according to his daughter, would exclude fathers and parents who adopt.

As usual, in the absence of federal action, states, and cities are taking the lead. New York and San Francisco both passed mandatory family leave plans earlier this year, and now, the nation’s capital has joined in. The Washington D.C. City Council passed a law this week securing eight weeks of paid time off, capping out at $1,000 per week, to care for a newborn, adopted child, or foster child. That bill also included six weeks of time off to care for an ill family member and two weeks for personal medical emergencies.

Washington’s bill is nothing short of a boon for the hardworking women and men of the D.C. hospitality industry (of which I was once a member). Unlike many Fortune 500 companies, most restaurants and bars don’t offer paid time off to employees who give birth or adopt. This isn’t just an inconvenient oversight; it’s a reality that systemically results in the exclusion of women from top kitchen jobs. Women make up 39.9 percent of America’s cooks, but only 19.7 percent of its head chefs — often the highest paying job in a restaurant.

Washington’s plan to offer leave is a step towards chipping away at this imbalance, though the law itself has its flaws. So without further adieu, here’s everything that U.S. restaurant workers need to know about DC’s Universal Paid Leave Act.

Is This Really, Truly, An All-Worker Paid Leave Program?

Yep. Waiters, dishwashers, porters, chefs — just about everyone in the restaurant industry or any industry outside of government — is eligible. To qualify, individuals need to spend more than 50 percent of his or her time working for an covered employer in the District of Columbia. Things get a touch more complicated for UberRush delivery workers, freelance food writers, and anyone else who might be considered “self-employed.” Those workers will be eligible for full benefits, but they’ll need to opt-in during a yearly enrollment period to allow for payroll deductions. (Anyone who applies for paid leave needs to have been employed by a covered employer for “some or all” of the preceding 52 weeks.)

Who Pays for This?

Employers do. Unlike worker-funded plans in New York and California, the Washington plan is fully paid for by an employer payroll deduction of 0.62 percent. To put that in perspective, if you’re a restaurant with a million dollar payroll, this will cost you $6,100/year. If you’re self-employed, that same rate applies. A freelancer food writer earning $42,000/year would end up paying out $279 per annum for the safety net of having access to leave.

How Much Will Hospitality Workers Earn Under Family Leave?

If you’re a non-salaried restaurant worker — a waiter, a bartender, a dishwasher — you’ll probably earn close to full pay on leave. But higher earning managers and head chefs, roles that women have historically had a tougher time breaking into, will see their leave pay decrease proportionally as their salaries go up. That will result in some tough family planning decisions.

More specifically, individuals on the lower end of the income scale — those earning up to 1.5 times the DC minimum of $15/hour (up to $46,800 per year) — will receive 90 percent of their wages during leave. Most hourly restaurant staffers fall into this bracket. So if you’re a line cook who makes $33,000, and if you take off the full leave period to care for a newborn, you’ll end up earning a total of $4,569 over that time period, versus $5,076 if you kept working.

Individuals who earn more than 1.5 times the DC minimum will collect $22.50/hour — around $810/week — plus 50 percent of the wages they would’ve earned over that amount, up to a weekly cap of $1,000. So if you’re a well-paid waiter or entry-level manager who makes $53,000 year, you’ll make $870 per week during your leave period, versus $1,019 if you kept working, a difference of over $1,192 over eight weeks. That’s kind of a lot of money.

Is D.C.’s Plan Better Than Other State Plans?

You bet it is. The key is that DC provides some of the sturdiest support to workers in the lower end of the middle class. When New York’s paid leave plan goes into full force by 2021, workers will only earn up to 67 percent of their weekly earnings. So that line cook earning $4,569 over eight weeks of leave in D.C. would only qualify for $5,102 over twelve weeks in New York. And in California, that line cook would only earn $2,094 while on leave — about $8.72/hour — because Sacramento only pays 55 percent of weekly earnings for six weeks.

The only family leave plan that outdoes D.C.’s is San Francisco’s, a city where restaurants and other employers are required to fill in the remaining 45 percent gap that California doesn’t pay, ensuring that employees caring for a child receive 100 percent of their regular compensation. West Coast, best coast.

Does D.C.’s Leave Plan Adequately Compensate Head Chefs?

Probably not. Head chefs in D.C. typically make $60,820/year, with the top 25 percent earning $77,000 or more, and the top 10 percent pulling in closer to $100,000. And yet none of these highly-skilled industry-leaders will see their leave pay pro-rated at over $52,000.

Sure, it’s easy to argue that these chefs earning $52K on leave are doing better than fast food workers earning much less, but the larger economic reality is that people adapt to and depend on the incomes they typically earn. Or put more bluntly: Your rent doesn’t drop by 20 percent just because you’ve had a kid. It could be devastating for a head chef who’s a single mom to see her take home pay drop by tens of thousands of dollars, especially if that pregnancy is unplanned.

That’s not to say it should be the job of government to ensure a CEO earning $250,000/year is kept whole during leave. But given the specific lack of female led kitchens throughout the U.S. — to continue the comparison, there’s a higher percentage of woman chief executives than top chefs — it’s unfortunate that a plan specifically designed to help bridge the gender gap at work is almost uniquely ill-equipped to deal with that gap where it’s most needed in restaurants.

But Wait a Minute: Maybe 90 Percent Leave Pay Isn’t Really Enough for Lower Income Workers Either?

Excellent point. Lower-paid workers are typically less income flexible; they have less of a buffer to weather financial hardship. As I mentioned above, a cook who takes off 11 weeks for child care in D.C. risks losing about $700. That sum might represent two months of boutique spin class for a more well-heeled worker, but for a single parent earning about half the District’s living wage of $30.80/hour (one child), that $700 could mean months of groceries.

Indeed, the original D.C. bill introduced last fall included 16 weeks of leave, 100 percent income replacement up to $1,000 per week, and a maximum weekly benefit of $3,000 per week. Alas.

An earlier version of this story incorrectly overstated the length of paid leave in the District of Columbia. It is eight weeks, not eleven.

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