D.C. government will send $10,000 checks to the city’s day-care workers

Thousands of day-care workers in Washington will get personal checks from the D.C. government for at least $10,000, after the D.C. Council voted unanimously Tuesday to redirect tax dollars from the city’s richest residents to child-care workers, who legislators say they believe are underpaid.

The council raised taxes on the city’s highest earners last year, and the members voted at that time to set aside $53 million in the first year of that tax to somehow raise the pay of day-care workers, saying that their work was vital to the city’s families but not sufficiently compensated by their current salaries.

But at the time, the council had not agreed on how exactly to make day-care workers’ salaries higher.

On Tuesday, the council indicated that it will set up a program to do so in future years, probably by subsidizing part of workers’ paychecks from their employers so that child-care workers will be paid on a scale comparable to public elementary school teachers.

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This year, to make sure workers get the money quickly, the council is going to give payment directly to any eligible day-care worker who applies for it. Workers who care for babies and toddlers will be eligible for checks of about $10,000 or $14,000, depending on whether they work as assistants or leaders of day-care classrooms.

A task force established by the council to study how to use the tax revenue to raise child-care salaries said the checks will represent a pay boost of about 25 percent for the average day-care worker in the District.

Council members said they believe the checks will reduce turnover in the child-care field, which makes it hard for child-care centers to retain workers and, as Janeese Lewis George (D-Ward 4) put it, “to be paid wages that reflect their skill and their work and will allow the city to grow our child-care sector.”

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The task force said more than 3,000 people work in day-care centers and home-based day-care programs in the District, caring for children from infancy until they are eligible for the city’s public preschool program at age 3.

“It’s just a breath of relief, and a galvanizing force for us to develop this long-term permanent program so teachers can actually have paychecks that reflect the work that they do,” said Ruqiyyah Anbar-Shaheen, who led advocacy for increasing day-care workers’ pay in D.C. and then joined the task force. “I can’t believe we’re here. I’m so glad we’re here. I’m grateful.”

The council voted Tuesday to direct the D.C. Office of the State Superintendent of Education to hire a company that will handle the application process for workers to ask for the money and will disburse the payments, either in installments until the end of the fiscal year in September or in one lump sum for each worker.

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The council also addressed another long-running concern Tuesday: boosting the city’s medical marijuana industry, which council members worry is suffering because of competition from unregulated businesses that give away marijuana with a cover purchase like a juice bottle or a poster. Those businesses have become well-established in the city as an informal workaround since District voters legalized marijuana use in 2014, but Congress blocked the federal city from legalizing recreational sales of the product. (“Thank you, Congress,” D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) said ironically Monday when discussing the necessity of legislation to help the medical marijuana businesses compete.)

Mendelson said the licensed medical marijuana businesses offer better proof of a quality product, and Council member Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3) pointed out that the District collects revenue from taxing the medical marijuana businesses but not from unregulated sales.

The council voted unanimously for a bill to extend residents’ medical marijuana cards so that they won’t expire until the end of September; to create a week-long break from sales taxes at medical marijuana businesses centered on the unofficial marijuana-celebrating holiday April 20; and to allow senior citizens to attest to their own medical need for the drug rather than see a doctor for authorization.

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Members had discussed allowing any adult in the city to self-attest to their need for medical marijuana. They did not vote on that proposal Tuesday, but they said they might return to it in the future.

The council also granted Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) approval to use eminent domain to purchase a vacant lot leased by Walmart, where the retail giant promised to build a store on the edge of the District but reneged.

Bowser has said that a grocery chain already operating in the city, which she has not identified, would be interested in building a store on the site at East Capitol and 58th streets NE if the District purchases it, bringing a grocery to an under-resourced neighborhood that has clamored for one.

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And in a more contentious debate, the council in a vote of 10-to-2 approved a 15-year contract for a private company to replace the District’s streetlights with energy-efficient lights that will automatically notify the company when a bulb burns out, rather than requiring a resident to call 311.

Council members disagreed over the merits of the public-private partnership, in which the private company will be authorized to borrow up to $160 million in bonds to finance the project and then the District will eventually pay the company up to $309 million over 15 years. Bowser said it would cost tens of millions more for the District to procure the same services through traditional contracting; the District’s current streetlight company, on the other hand, said it could do the work for more than $100 million less than the company that won the contract.

“It’s an embarrassment we’re spending so much more,” Mendelson said.

But others said they believed the contract was sound and the streetlight improvements important, and only Mendelson and Vincent C. Gray (D-Ward 7) voted against it.