For leaves that start on or after Sept. 26, 2021, changes to Washington, DC’s Universal Paid Leave (UPL) law add two weeks of paid prenatal leave to the paid family and medical leave (PFML) program. Other amendments increase the maximum duration of medical leave from two to six weeks and allow its use for miscarriage or stillbirth. The Universal Paid Leave Amendment Act of 2021 (Act 24-176, B24-285) also sets year-to-year variable leave durations and the employer contribution rates for later years, depending on the projected fiscal impact; clarifies insurance offset restrictions; and implements certain special provisions related to the city’s COVID-19 public health emergency. The act is still under a 30-day congressional review but is expected to take effect unchanged in early December.
The UPL program generally covers all employers subject to the city's unemployment insurance (UI) law. If an employer pays the city’s UI taxes for at least one employee in the quarter, the employer must comply with the law. The UPL law covers all part- or full-time employees working for a covered employer if they spend more than 50% of that work time in the city. Employers contribute 0.62% of a covered employee’s wage for the PFML program, along with UI premiums.
Employees can use paid leave to care for their own serious health condition or a seriously ill family member or to bond with a new child. UPL benefits are calculated using the covered employee's average weekly wage (AWW) for the four quarters with the highest wages out of the five quarters immediately preceding the qualifying leave. Employees may qualify for 90% of wages up to 1.5 times the city’s minimum wage (currently $15.20/hour or $608/week) and 50% of wages exceeding 1.5 times the city’s minimum wage. For leaves beginning on or after Sept. 26, 2021, the maximum benefit amount rose to $1,009, up from the initial $1,000 maximum.
Expanded duration and use
Effective Oct. 1, 2021, the city has expanded the duration of medical leave that starts on or after Sept. 26, 2021, to six weeks and added two weeks for necessary prenatal care. Other changes add miscarriage (pregnancy loss before 20 weeks) and stillbirth (pregnancy loss at 20 weeks or later) as qualifying reasons for medical leave. An eligible pregnant individual can use prenatal leave for:
- Routine and specialty pregnancy-related appointments, exams and treatments provided by a healthcare provider, including prenatal checkups and ultrasounds
- Treatment of pregnancy complications
- Bed rest required or prescribed by a healthcare provider
- Prenatal physical therapy
The table below summarizes the changes to leave duration:
The expanded leave is available until Oct. 1, 2022.
Maximum leave. The maximum leave for any combination of parental, family and medical leave remains eight weeks in a 52-week period. However, covered employees are eligible for two weeks of prenatal leave in addition to the maximum eight weeks for parental leave. Employees may not receive more than six weeks of combined prenatal and medical leave.
Retroactive claims. The amendments provide that covered employees can receive UPL benefits retroactively if they submit a claim within 30 calendar days of the qualifying leave event. The 30-day deadline can be waived if “exigent” circumstances prevent a covered employee from submitting a claim in time.
Poster requirement. Employers must display an updated notice by Feb. 1, 2022, on the premises at which any covered employee works. Employers also must provide information about the UPL program to new employees and annually to all covered employees.
In future years, the maximum duration of each category of leave and the employer contribution may fluctuate to reflect the UPL fund balance and projected spending. By March 1, 2022, and annually thereafter, state regulators will set new leave durations, employer contributions or both. However, the leave duration for each category won’t drop below the time available for claims filed before Sept. 26, 2021, and the employer contribution is capped at 0.62%. The new leave durations and employer contribution rates set by each March 1 typically will take effect the following July 1. But in 2022, any changes made to leave durations won’t take effect until October.
Based on projected spending and the fund balance, leave duration can increase or decrease. Leave duration may increase by one or more weeks in the following order:
- Extend prenatal leave to a maximum of two weeks
- Extend medical leave to a maximum of six weeks
- Extend parental leave to a maximum of 10 weeks
- Further extend medical leave to a maximum of eight weeks
- Extend family leave to a maximum of eight weeks
- Further extend parental leave to a maximum of 12 weeks
- Further extend medical leave to a maximum of 10 weeks
- Further extend family leave to a maximum of 10 weeks
- Further extend medical leave to a maximum of 12 weeks
- Further extend family leave to a maximum of 12 weeks
After implementing all of these extensions, regulators may reduce the employer contribution rate below 0.62% to equal the projected amount needed to maintain the benefits and the continued solvency of the fund.
As of Oct. 1, 2021, a new coordination-of-benefits provision (DC Code § 32-541.07) adds restrictions for insurance offsets. An insurer cannot offset or reduce benefits or income available to an eligible individual under an insured temporary or short-term disability insurance (STD) policy or contract. This ban doesn’t extend to an employer’s self-funded STD or paid leave benefit plan.
The law makes two temporary changes that remain in effect until one year after the city’s COVID-19 public health emergency expired July 25, 2021. For claims filed after Oct. 1, 2021:
- An employee’s average weekly wage (AWW) will be calculated using the highest four of the past 10 quarters’ earnings (rather than the usual five) before the leave begins.
- The one-week waiting period before UPL benefits are paid is suspended.
Due to the potential for yearly adjustments to the UPL program, employers will have to determine annually how much time is available for each type of leave. Employers with self-funded paid leave programs for their employees will need to develop a process for determining how to coordinate benefits. Covered employers will have to be alert to the UPL program changes beginning each July 1 and may want to coordinate with their paid leave administrators.
Covered employers should:
- Update PFML policies and procedures for DC employees
- Cease any offsetting of insured STD benefits with UPL benefits
- Ensure covered employees who may have already used two weeks of medical leave in 2021 have access to an additional four weeks for qualifying reasons before the end of the year
- Confirm leave administrators are trained to respond to inquiries about prenatal leave and leave after a miscarriage or stillbirth
- Confirm any permissible employer-provided benefit offset by the UPL benefit is using the increased weekly UPL maximum amount of $1009
- Post the updated notice in the premises where any covered employee works by Feb. 1, 2022
Look for implementing rules in the near future
- Updated employee notice (Washington, DC, Department of Employment Services (DOE), Oct. 28, 2021)
- Act 24-176 (B24-285, Title IV, Subtitle G) (DC Council, Sept. 27, 2021)
- UPL expansion notice (Washington, DC, DOE, Sept. 24, 2021)
- Maximum benefit update notice (Washington, DC, DOE, Sept. 9, 20021)
- UPL website
- Universal Paid Leave law (DC Code tit. 32, §§ 32-541.01–32-541.12)