Daddy’s stakes on family leave

Democratic members of the legislative women’s caucus announce their agenda earlier this month, including more parental leave.
Democratic members of the legislative women’s caucus announce their agenda earlier this month, including more parental leave. shubler@sacbee.com

This month, Democrats in the legislative women’s caucus announced their agenda. As usual, it included a plan to expand family leave.

It’s not clear why women always seem to end up doing the heavy lifting on family-friendly legislation. Last time we checked, men also had a little something to do with making babies.

But this year, we hope lawmakers of all persuasions and parties will get behind a more secure family life for Californians because this year’s proposal will particularly benefit men who would like to take paternity leave.

Right now, a new dad who wants to take paternity leave is only guaranteed his job if he works for a company with 50 or more employees. Birth mothers, on the other hand, can get job protection even if their company employs as few as five people because pregnancy makes them eligible under a different law for disability leave.

Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson, D-Santa Barbara, would like to make family leave more available, for adoptive parents and for the 40 percent or so of men who work for small employers. So would we. Studies show all sorts of societal benefits arise when families have time to bond, and when men are encouraged to share more equally in the unpaid labor that comes with having children.

Women’s wages rise. Children do better at school. Daughters in particular seem to flourish. Parents are less likely to seek public assistance. Infant mortality rates improve. Men become more engaged fathers. Adoptions and foster placements are more successful. Companies experience more loyalty from workers.

But outside of California’s tech sector, where the competition for engineers has set off a benefits derby among Silicon Valley employers, paternity leave is a stretch for most fathers.

Even though California is among the few states to reimburse people on family leave for a portion of their lost income – and even though all workers pay for that reimbursement via a payroll tax administered by the state disability insurance program – if the employer falls below the 50-employee threshold, a father can be fired for using the benefit he’s paid for.

That’s not fair, and it’s time California recognized that new parents also need job security.

Jackson’s Senate Bill 1166 would build on the state pregnancy disability leave law to guarantee parents’ jobs while they are on leave for up to 12 weeks after the birth of a child. It would apply to every employer except for those with fewer than five employees.

The California Chamber of Commerce may tar the idea as a “job killer,” as it did last year when Jackson tried in vain to extend protected leave to workers with sick siblings, grandparents, grandchildren and in-laws. But this year’s parental leave gambit is narrower in focus, and it acknowledges practices already common in the workforce.

Most small employers already work informally with employees who have family obligations. And this measure adds no new costs other than the scheduling hassle; the roughly half-salary reimbursement offered since 2004 through the paid family leave program is paid entirely by workers.

The proposed expansion also speaks to the priorities of a new generation. Once, new fathers would settle for a day or two off, and new mothers would go on maternity leave or quit to do most of child rearing. Now, at least a third of the Californians using paid family leave are fathers, up from about 18 percent in the benefit’s first year.

Women may be pushing this year’s parental leave bill – as usual – but men have much to gain, as do their employers. In a 2014 survey, half the men on paternity leave said they still made themselves available to the boss in emergencies, 45 percent still checked work email and 30 percent still checked voicemail.

Such a deal: The boss gets to do right by grateful workers and the workers chip in from home – for free.