On the coasts, a big week for family leave

Alphonzo Jackson and his 6-month-old son, Isaiah, chat with San Francisco Supervisor Scott Wiener. The city this month became the nation’s first to require fully paid family leave.
Alphonzo Jackson and his 6-month-old son, Isaiah, chat with San Francisco Supervisor Scott Wiener. The city this month became the nation’s first to require fully paid family leave. The Associated Press

The new $15 minimum wage isn’t the only bicoastal gift this week for workers in New York and California. On the heels of the pay bump, New York state and San Francisco also approved major expansions of paid family leave.

That’s not saying much, of course. The United States lags so far behind the rest of the industrialized world when it comes to work-family balance that almost any expansion could be considered major.

Still, when it takes effect in 2018, New York’s paid leave policy will displace California’s as the best in the nation. And starting in January, thanks to the tech sector’s example, larger San Francisco businesses will have to make employees whole, salarywise, for family leaves of up to six weeks.

Right now, federal law gives workers 12 weeks of job-protected leave to care for a new child or a sick relative. But it only covers companies with more than 50 employees. Also, it’s unpaid, so millions can’t afford to take it. Only California, New Jersey and Rhode Island have programs to replace any of that lost pay.

New York’s new policy, signed into law Monday, improves on California’s. Importantly, New York will offer job-protected leave for all full- and part-time employees with six months on the job – not just those at firms with more than 50 employees, as in this state.

New York also will offer more leave than California. This state’s family leave program replaces part of a worker’s lost pay for up to six weeks. It was groundbreaking when it was passed, but really that’s not enough time to bond properly with an adoptive child or newborn, or to get a sick, elderly parent through an illness and arrange care through convalescence.

New York will offer eight weeks starting in 2018, phasing up to 12 weeks over the next three years. That’s more like it (though, again, nothing compared to 6-month-plus paid leaves of Europe). Over the long term, the wage replacement also is more generous.

A bill by Assemblyman Jimmy Gomez, passed by the Legislature last month – which Gov. Jerry Brown should sign already – would increase the benefit modestly in this state starting in 2018, particularly for minimum wage workers, bringing California back into the lead, at least on that front.

Lawmakers also should pass Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson’s bill to make the state program work better for workers at small companies, by mandating job protection at firms with more than five employees.

The California Chamber of Commerce has, unfortunately, labeled Jackson’s bill a job killer, though it costs employers nothing. California’s family leave is paid for entirely by workers, through a tiny payroll deduction that happens whether or not their company can fire them for taking advantage of the program.

Why the chamber keeps picking this battle is unclear. It opposed the existing state program, too, and in more than a decade, not one of the dire consequences it predicted has come to fruition. Indeed, businesses, here and elsewhere, are vying to improve family leave, merely to hang onto employees. Bank of America’s benefit just expanded to four months at full pay.

Millennial workers and global corporations just don’t see family leave as a women’s issue, and Congress should get with it and create a national program. A policy this basic shouldn’t be created piecemeal.