Restaurant Opportunities Center (ROC)-DC is fresh off celebrating our Paid Sick Days victory with our coalition partners.  Through the tireless commitment of restaurant workers and other activists in Washington, D.C., every restaurant worker in the district will now have access to paid sick days. However, we understand our work is not done. There is a lot of progress needed to make sure workers in the District are able to provide income and care for themselves and their families. We can start by examining and making changes to the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA).

The current FMLA law, which provides up to 12 weeks leave to care for a new child or a serious personal or family illness, is a good start, but many workers are still not covered under the law. Many part-time workers and workers at companies with fewer than 50 employees are excluded, leaving out two-fifths of the workforce – and a much higher percentage of low-wage workers. This especially impacts workers in the restaurant industry, a sector made up of mostly smaller businesses that employ thousands of part-time workers in D.C.

Also, in Washington, D.C. over 50 percent of restaurant workers in Wards 7 & 8 (the areas of D.C. where the majority of the District’s African American population reside) live below the poverty line. These are the very workers least likely to be covered by the FMLA.

Therefore, workers and advocates much come together once again and address this issue. How do we do it? What changes to FMLA should we be looking at? Here are some changes that should be directly addressed now through legislation:

  • Lower the hours worked threshold to be covered under the law. FMLA applies to workers who work at least 1,250 hours a year for one employer. Many restaurant workers are hired only part-time and have more than one job.
  • Eliminate the requirement that employees have to have been employed for 12 months for the same employer prior to using leave. Low-wage workers typically change jobs every six months.
  • Lower the firm size threshold for businesses covered by the law to 20 employees or less.
  • Create tougher enforcement mechanisms to protect workers who ask for leave to care for themselves or a loved one. When a business decides not to abide by the law, workers should have no fear of losing their jobs when they speak up.
  • Invest funds in outreach. Every worker who is covered should know they are covered by the law

As we approach the 21st anniversary of the passage of the FMLA, we recognize the progress that has been made but we also know that we must start a grassroots movement to close major in loopholes in the law for District residents.

Now is the time for workers and advocates to once again form the same coalitions that brought us paid sick days and join together to advocate for the extension of benefits to workers who are left behind in current FMLA laws. Also, legislators in the District must heed their call and take action and pass laws that implement their recommendations.

We must ride the momentum of our Paid Sick Day movement, and ensure no worker is denied good benefits in Washington, D.C.

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By Jeremiah Lowery and Anna Hovland

Jeremiah Lowery is the Research and Policy Coordinator at Restaurant Opportunities Center D.C. (ROC-DC)

Anna Hovland is a waitress and ROC-DC member.