How a lack of women at the table hurt working families

Assembly Labor Committee Chairman Roger Hernández, D-West Covina, whose panel blocked a women’s caucus family leave bill.
Assembly Labor Committee Chairman Roger Hernández, D-West Covina, whose panel blocked a women’s caucus family leave bill. Sacramento Bee file

Dirty deeds often happen under the cover of legislative deadlines. But there’s a special place for the kind of low blow delivered by Assemblyman Roger Hernández, D-West Covina, to new parents during the countdown to the July recess.

Senate Bill 1166 died eight days before the break in the Assembly Labor Committee, which is chaired by Hernández. It shouldn’t have. It was a smart, well-thought-out bill that would have given adoptive parents and new fathers better access to family leave benefits they already pay for.

But in a bit of choreography that stank of political payback, the bill, which had been championed by the legislative women’s caucus, was blocked by Hernández, who is running for a Los Angeles-area congressional seat against incumbent Democratic Rep. Grace Napolitano. Never mind that the legislation would have helped working families in his district; earlier this year, women’s caucus leaders including the bill’s lead author, Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson, D-Santa Barbara, called for Hernández to resign his committee assignments after his wife accused him of domestic violence.

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Following Hernández’ lead, Assemblymen Kansen Chu, D-San Jose, Patrick O’Donnell, D-Long Beach and Eric Linder, R-Corona also took a walk on SB 1166, and Assemblyman Jim Patterson, R-Fresno, voted no, leaving the bill with insufficient votes for passage. Its only yes votes were from Assemblymen Kevin McCarty, D-Sacramento, and Tony Thurmond, D-Richmond. Thus did the majority of an all-male committee kill a women’s caucus priority.

The problem is, infighting like this isn’t just political. It impacts real people. Though California is among the few states to reimburse a modicum of lost wages for workers who need time off to care for sick relatives or bond with new babies, the program has a gap in it that actually hurts families. The law only guarantees the jobs of those who work at companies with 50 or more employees.

The benefit is funded via a small automatic deduction that comes out of every private sector worker’s paycheck. But if a new dad, for example, is among the 40 percent of the workforce that is employed by a small business, he can legally be fired if he insists on taking paternity leave.

SB 1166 would have guaranteed the jobs of new parents at companies with 10 or more employees, closing much of the gap at no cost to taxpayers and employers. Though many small businesses informally accommodate leaves for employees, it’s also common for workers to simply quit or forgo leave, rather than put their bosses on the spot.

Last year, a broader version of the bill nearly won passage, despite employer concerns about the fine print and the hassle factor; Hernández, in fact, was among the yes votes. This year’s version was more modest, but in a statement, Hernández said he had withheld his vote due to a “need to be cognizant of the cumulative burden of these provisions, particularly on small businesses.” Whatever that means.

Vote-ducking is cowardly and political payback should be reserved for politicians. But blame also goes to Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendón, who oversees committee assignments. How can the committee that handles every piece of workplace legislation in California have not one woman?

True, there are only 19 women in the Assembly seats and only 12 in the Senate, and Labor isn’t the most popular committee. But at least eight legislative committees and sub-committees are all-male. Among them are the Senate PERS committee, which has jurisdiction over public employees, the Assembly Revenue and Taxation Committee, and three budget subcommittees, including the Senate budget subcommittee on education.

Women make up half of the electorate and almost half of the workforce. Too few hold office, but there should be a special place for those who do – at the table. Just as there is a special place for those who play politics at the expense of families – outside the Capitol door.