California Forum

If California truly cares about children, the state will improve family leave

San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee with parents and children in 2016 after signing a parental leave ordinance for the city. San Francisco is the first U.S. city to require employers to offer parents fully paid maternity and paternity leave.
San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee with parents and children in 2016 after signing a parental leave ordinance for the city. San Francisco is the first U.S. city to require employers to offer parents fully paid maternity and paternity leave. Xinhua/Zuma Press

The most important gift California can give to fathers, mothers, and most importantly, newborn children this Father’s Day is a strong parental leave policy – one that allows parents to take job-protected time off to care for their newborns in the crucial first few months of life.

Parental leave cannot be discussed only as a job benefit for adults. It’s a biological and developmental game changer for newborns. We know from great medical research that the very first days and months of a baby’s life are crucial to each child’s future.

Parental leave cannot be discussed only as a job benefit for adults. It’s a biological and developmental game changer for newborns. But millions of California parents are blocked from taking it by a lack of job protections in current law.

A baby’s brain development starts just before birth and happens at an accelerated pace in the first three months, as well as throughout the first five years. What parents and caregivers do for and with their babies in those first weeks gives children both a strong learning start and emotionally secure underpinnings for life.

Babies thrive when supported in immediate and individual ways by their family and by the people who are interacting with them in these earliest days. While those loving interactions can be with any caring adult, parents are key: The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that healthy full-term infants not be enrolled in child care until they are at least 12 weeks old due to their rapid developmental changes and the risk of quickly developing severe undetected illness.

This science is why First 5 California launched our Talk. Read. Sing.® campaign, which is currently on the airwaves. We want every parent to understand that their loving attention and interactions are key to their children’s future success. Every parent needs this information to take action during the first months of their child’s life, but every parent also needs the ability to take the time for action.

Our children deserve state policies to strengthen these key first months of life, and the life-building opportunities they truly are for each child. Parental leave for these months is not a luxury to debate – it’s a developmental necessity.

Job protections are crucial for helping parents take parental leave. Under current California law, only parents who work for an employer with 50 or more employees are eligible for up to 12 weeks of job-protected parental leave, including protection for their family’s health care coverage. That leaves too many new parents to struggle with an impossible choice between the well-being of their new child and their financial security.

A 2011 Field Poll found almost 2 out of 5 employees eligible to use our state’s paid family leave program did not apply for the state benefit because they feared losing their job or other negative consequences at work. This is a program employees fund with deductions from their very own paychecks.

Legislation would lift this burden for up to 2.7 million California workers. Senate Bill 63 by Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson, D-Santa Barbara, would extend job protections to employees in medium-size businesses – 20 employees and up.

This Father’s Day, I hope state leaders will give this necessary gift to California’s new parents. Job protections will allow more fathers and mothers to bond with their babies in the first months of their life, and lay the foundation for their children’s futures in those critical first few months.

George Halvorson is Chairman of First 5 California and former CEO, Kaiser Permanente. Follow him @GCHalvorson or @First5CA.

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