Editorials

The haves and have-nots of paid family leave

Senate Bill 406, by Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson, D-Santa Barbara, would expand California’s state version of the federal leave law, so that the unpaid leave mandate would include businesses with 25 to 50 employees.
Senate Bill 406, by Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson, D-Santa Barbara, would expand California’s state version of the federal leave law, so that the unpaid leave mandate would include businesses with 25 to 50 employees. The Associated Press

As the “Fight for $15” has preoccupied blue-collar workers, the high end of the workforce has discovered a new privilege: paid family leave.

Four months at Facebook for new mothers and fathers. Three months at Microsoft, plus an optional part-time re-entry. At Netflix, a full year of “unlimited” paid parental leave.

Finally, some balance, right? Not exactly. Though the trend toward more generous corporate leave policies is great news, it’s irrelevant for most workers. The big, mostly tech, companies expanding paid family leave are competing for skilled engineers or trying to recruit women. Good for them, and good for their families. But down the ladder, work-life balance is a distant dream.

Unlike most of the developed world, the U.S. has no paid-maternity-leave mandate; paternity leave is still a luxury for most American fathers. There’s little incentive for employers to go beyond the mingy 1993 Family and Medical Leave Act, which requires only that companies with 50 or more employees hold a worker’s job for 12 weeks while he or she cares for an ailing spouse or child or a new baby, without pay.

Even in California, where the family leave laws are supposedly a national model, the only guarantees are for six weeks of unpaid leave plus six weeks with partial pay, up to about $1,100 a week at the six-figure end of the pay scale. That is, if the employer isn’t among the the 41 percent of California businesses that are exempt because they fall below that 50-employee threshold.

Of course, many of those exempt businesses accommodate valued employees, and adjust when a worker has family issues. But they don’t have to, and though every worker in the state pays, via payroll tax, for the paid family leave benefit the state offers, it’s also not uncommon among small businesses for workers to be forced out for taking a family leave.

The leave gap is of a piece with the income disparity dividing the country. California should be trying to equalize benefits, broadening and simplifying the state’s family leave laws.

Senate Bill 406, by Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson, D-Santa Barbara, would expand California’s state version of the federal leave law, so that the unpaid leave mandate would include businesses with 25 to 50 employees. It also would allow unpaid leaves for those caring for sick grandparents, grandchildren and siblings.

Assembly Bill 908, by Assemblyman Jimmy Gomez, D-Los Angeles, would separately lengthen the state’s paid family leave benefit to eight weeks and improve wage replacement, which is underwritten entirely by workers through state disability insurance.

The California Chamber of Commerce is neutral on AB 908 but claims small businesses will be overwhelmed if unpaid leaves are incrementally expanded. But, as the chamber notes, many businesses already voluntarily accommodate the occasional family issue.

At least six other states have expanded eligibility with little problem. Dropping the threshold to 25 employees would impact less than 6.2 percent of the nearly 1.4 million employers in California, and if history is any gauge, 9 out of 10 businesses will be fine with it.

Nor is it likely that wily workers will start demanding multiple leaves for a widening assortment of crises; the documentation is too involved, just for starters. That’s a red herring of the sort the chamber has been throwing up for more than a decade, since California first enacted paid leave.

What is scary for small businesses is the threat of getting sued if they don’t get the new rules right. That’s a real and potentially costly concern, and perhaps the legal remedies in SB 406 could be gradually phased in.

But generally, these proposed tweaks are sensible and modest and address a social need that shouldn’t be left solely to employers. A family is part of what makes life worth living. Everyone has loved ones, not just the privileged.

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