All we want next Christmas? Better work-family policy

Workers – including new dads – could benefit from a renewed push this year to expand opportunities for paid time off to bond with a newborn – or to take care of a gravely ill relative.
Workers – including new dads – could benefit from a renewed push this year to expand opportunities for paid time off to bond with a newborn – or to take care of a gravely ill relative. TNS

There’s nothing like a holiday to underscore the aspects of life that matter – and to drive home the sad state of this country’s work-family policies. Raise your hand if you’re scrambling for child care this week, or know someone who is.

Still, bit by bit, and no thanks to the Republican-run Congress, working parents are making inroads, particularly in California. Gov. Jerry Brown and state lawmakers should make it a priority to do more in 2017, particularly in the ripe area of family leave.

This year, state lawmakers improved on the state’s 15-year-old, first-in-the-nation paid family leave program by improving the payout for workers who take time off to bond with a new baby or care for a sick relative.

Right now, the state program reimburses 55 percent of a worker’s salary, capped at $1,129 a week via a system funded entirely by worker payroll deductions. That will rise to 60 percent – and 70 percent for low-wage workers – in 2018.

That was the good news. The bad news was that Brown vetoed a bill to give small-business employees on family leave the same job protections that federal law already gives to workers at larger employers.

California’s landmark family leave mandates are ripe for improvement in 2017.

Some 2.7 million California parents risk being fired if they try to take family leave, just because they work at a company with fewer than 50 employees.

That’s unfair, and it creates a massive bait-and-switch in a sector the economy depends on. Entrepreneurs know that a small business is, in itself, a kind of family, and it rises or falls on the loyalty of its employees.

But Brown was swayed by the California Chamber of Commerce, which views family leave mandates as “job killers.” Studies have shown that this is not the case and that most businesses like them or have no problem with them.

Silicon Valley offers some of the most generous paid family leave policies in the nation and isn’t suffering. Larger employers have lived with the state’s paid family leave laws for 15 years, with no problem; after all, workers pay for it. And many small businesses already voluntarily rearrange schedules to accommodate workers’ family obligations.

The chamber dislikes enforcement provisions that regularly are inserted in leave bills. The bill Brown vetoed would have given workers the right to sue a small business that refused to comply with family leave laws if the two sides couldn’t agree in arbitration.

This so-called “right of private action” puts teeth in a law, but it’s a red herring. Anyone who has ever been a new parent or cared for a dying loved one knows that the last thing anyone wants in those extraordinary life situations is a stressful, soul-sucking lawsuit. People just don’t want to risk destitution to deal with temporary upheavals in their families.

Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson, D-Santa Barbara, a lawyer and a family leave champion, reintroduced the small business expansion last week, proposing 12 weeks of job-protected family leave for workers at companies with more than 20 employees. She should, as Brown suggested, work with the Chamber. The Chamber should be willing to bend, as well.

Last week, the District of Columbia’s city council approved one of the most generous paid family leave plans in the country, requiring all employers, large and small, to guarantee new parents eight weeks of paid leave, sick workers two weeks and employees caring for gravely ill relatives up to six weeks.

Earlier in the year, New York passed a paid family leave bill giving all workers up to 12 weeks.

American Express this month upped the ante to 20 weeks of family leave at full pay for its employees, and Ikea announced it would be offering up to 16 weeks to all its workers, including part-timers.

Earlier in the year, Etsy joined Netflix, Google, Twitter, Facebook and others in the ongoing tech benefits derby, offering its employees 26 weeks of paid leave.

Even President-elect Donald Trump has a family leave plan, which, we hope, will light a fire under Congress.

In any case, American families deserve better than the lip service they’ve gotten. It’s time we gave ourselves the gift of catching up with the rest of the world on work-family policy.