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California extends family leave to millions of small business workers

Rockland resident Amanda Mackey softly touches the cheek of her son, 1-day old Beckett Mackey at Sutter Davis Hospital on Aug. 1, 2017 in Davis.
Rockland resident Amanda Mackey softly touches the cheek of her son, 1-day old Beckett Mackey at Sutter Davis Hospital on Aug. 1, 2017 in Davis. rbyer@sacbee.com

Nearly 2.8 million small business workers in California will be eligible to take 12 weeks of unpaid leave to care for a newborn without losing their jobs next year.

Gov. Jerry Brown on Thursday signed Senate Bill 63, which takes effect Jan. 1.

The measure will become law more than two decades after the Clinton administration gave workers at larger businesses with at least 50 employees similar unpaid family leave protections under federal law. California lawmakers subsequently matched state law to the federal provisions, but did not extend unpaid leave to small business workers until now. At least nine other states offer job-protected family leave for small business workers.

“This is a great victory for working parents and children in California,” said Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson, D-Santa Barbara, who wrote the bill. “No one should have to choose between caring for their newborn and keeping their job.”

The California Employment Lawyers Association, which co-sponsored the bill, said the new law will also give workers greater access to wage replacement benefits.

California enacted the first paid family leave program in the country in 2004 that allows parents who take parental leave to apply for unemployment disability compensation. But the program didn’t help many small business workers, who were not guaranteed a job under state law when they returned to work, said Mariko Yoshihara, legislative counsel for the employment lawyers.

“It has become this false promise for workers because while we do have this program that provides wage replacement benefits if you go on leave, not everyone can take the time off to access those benefits,” said Yoshihara, whose organization co-sponsored SB 63.

The bill was opposed by a number of business groups, employers and the California Chamber of Commerce, which deemed it a “job killer.”

Brown vetoed a similar Jackson bill last year to require small businesses with at least 20 workers to provide six weeks of unpaid protected leave. In his veto message, Brown advised the veteran lawmaker to consider adding a provision allowing employers who don’t comply to pursue mediation with an employee prior to a lawsuit.

Jackson heeded the governor’s advice this year and brought back an altered bill that requires the Department of Fair Employment and Housing to provide a parental leave mediation pilot program until 2020. If an employer elects to enter mediation, the employee cannot sue until the process is complete. She also doubled the amount of unpaid leave small business workers would be eligible to take.

The new law makes it illegal for companies that employ 20 to 49 workers to refuse to grant new parents up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave within one year of their child’s birth, adoption or foster care placement. Employees must have at least one year of experience and 1,250 hours on the job to be eligible for job-protected leave under the bill.

Taryn Luna: 916-326-5545, @TarynLuna

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