Improve pay equity and family leave

Women parade last century for the right to vote.
Women parade last century for the right to vote. The Associated Press

This week, as Americans mark the 95th anniversary of women’s suffrage, the Assembly will vote on a bill that, if passed, will give California the nation’s strongest pay equity laws.

It has bipartisan support and the approval of the California Chamber of Commerce. State lawmakers should move it along for Senate concurrence and the governor should sign it into law.

Senate Bill 358, sponsored by Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson, D-Santa Barbara, would require equal pay for “substantially similar work” regardless of gender. It also would prohibit retaliation against workers who try to compare notes with fellow employees on salaries.

These protections may sound obvious, but incredibly, no state has yet come close to this level of attention to the lingering pay disparity between men and women. In 1963, women earned an average of 59 cents for every dollar a man earned. Today, that figure is 78 cents nationally and 84 cents in California.

So progress has been made, but the gap persists, and only part can be attributed to mothers choosing to work part time or opting for less time-intensive professions. From nurses to movie stars, female workers consistently earn less for no reason other than that underpaying women has become a kind of American tradition. It’s a systematic rip-off of mothers, grandmothers, sisters and daughters, and it’s costing them and those they support more than $33.6 billion a year.

SB 358 would help. So would improving the state’s family leave laws so that more men would take advantage of them.

Californians can take up to six weeks of partially paid leave to care for newborns and sick family members; the benefit comes out of the state Disability Insurance Fund, financed by a small payroll tax.

Workers pay for it whether they use it or not, but many don’t take it, either because they’re afraid they’ll be fired or because the benefits are so small that they can’t afford to. Changing that equation even a little would encourage more men to take paternity leaves and share more of the family caretaking burdens, normalizing the work-life conflicts that so many employers see merely as women’s issues.

Assembly Bill 908, carried by Assemblyman Jimmy Gomez, D-Los Angeles, would increase the benefit on a sliding scale and lengthen it to 10 weeks. SB 406, another Jackson bill, would expand unpaid family leave for up to 12 weeks and broaden job protections to apply to all but the smallest employers, requiring all companies with more than 25 employees to provide it.

Ninety-five years ago this week, women got the right to vote and opportunity became a little more equal. California shouldn’t pass up this historic chance to further level the playing field.