Capitol Alert

Family leave expansion bills spark clashes

Guadalupe Solis prepares a sandwich while working as a line cook at Plates Cafe and Catering, an employment training program for homeless mothers offered by St. John's Shelter.
Guadalupe Solis prepares a sandwich while working as a line cook at Plates Cafe and Catering, an employment training program for homeless mothers offered by St. John's Shelter.

Two efforts to expand paid and unpaid “family leave” for California workers – a major cause for the Legislature’s Women’s Caucus – generated sharp clashes Wednesday among powerful interest groups, but both survived committee votes.

One of the clashes was a surprise to members of the Senate Labor and Industrial Relations Committee – a late-blooming and rare division among labor unions.

Assembly Bill 908 would increase paid family leave payments on a sliding scale for up to 10 weeks, with the aim of making them more meaningful to low-wage workers. The 13-year-old program now pays up to six weeks of benefits to workers who take leave to care for ill children and relatives. Payments come from the Disability Insurance Fund, which is totally financed by a payroll tax on workers, just under 1 percent of wages up to $108,160.

AB 908, carried by Assemblyman Jimmy Gomez, D-Los Angeles, a former labor union official, has been supported by a wide array of unions, and anti-poverty, social service and women’s advocacy groups. With no listed opposition, it sailed through the Assembly on a 60-17 bipartisan vote.

On Wednesday, however, the California Labor Federation and other unions that had been silent on the bill declared their opposition in the Senate committee.

CLF lobbyist Angie Wei complained to the senators that raising benefits for family leave recipients while leaving them untouched for those who cannot work due to illness is unfair. Plus, she said, data indicate that the benefits are more commonly used by higher-income workers but will lead to a big tax increase that will be paid by all payroll employees. “How much are we going to pay? Wei asked, rhetorically.

Gomez termed Wei’s assertions “falsehoods” and “exaggerations at best and devoid of reality,” contending that a large Disability Insurance Fund reserve can absorb the increased benefits without a big tax increase. (The disability insurance program pays workers for illnesses and injuries that are not job-related. Disabilities connected to work come under the Workers’ Compensation system.)

The CLF’s opposition clearly discomfited the committee’s dominant Democrats, who are ordinarily aligned with the union organization, but the support of women’s groups prevailed in a 4-1 committee endorsement of the bill.

“This is a discussion whose time has come,” Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson, D-Santa Barbara, said. “We’re sexy now and we’re going for it.”

Jackson is carrying the other controversial family leave proposal, Senate Bill 406, which faced a test in the Assembly Labor and Employment Committee a few hours later, and gained its approval on a 4-2 vote.

While business and employer groups are staying out of the battle over AB 908, because its benefits are financed by taxes on workers, they are very much involved in SB 406, even though it would expand unpaid family leave to care for relatives for up to 12 weeks.

The California Chamber of Commerce has designated the bill, which has already cleared the Senate, a “job killer,” saying that expanding the number of acceptable reasons for unpaid leave and making it applicable to employers with as few as 25 workers would disrupt work schedules and raise costs. Current law applies to employers with 50 or more workers.

Labor unions appear to be united in support of SB 406, and have been joined by social service and women’s rights groups in arguing that that too few workers can now take advantage of the current law.

Jackson termed it “a modest expansion” of the 24-year-old California Family Rights Act that “will create a stronger California.” But a representative of the Chamber of Commerce called it “a huge administrative burden” on employers to adjust for workers who take leave, and a benefit that’s already being widely abused.