New parents deserve guaranteed parental leave

The Kansas City Star

Charles Anderson had his first baby girl in early July this year. He was looking forward to taking paternity leave under California’s Paid Family Leave law since he was paying into the fund with every paycheck.

However, just weeks before his baby was born, his HR director explained to him that “Paid Family Leave is only an insurance benefit,” and it didn’t allow him to actually take the time off. Charles’ daughter was born on a Friday. He was back to work the following Tuesday.

More than two in every five workers in California are like Charles, working for a smaller employer that is not covered under the law that provides job protection to new parents. This means that 41 percent of the workforce cannot access California’s Paid Family Leave program without risking their jobs.

This may change, however, with a recently revived proposal, Senate Bill 654 by Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson, D-Santa Barbara, that would provide six weeks of job-protected parental leave for workers at companies with 20 or more employees. Current law provides 12 weeks of job-protected parental leave, but only for workers at companies with 50 or more employees. With these changes, the bill would affect just 6 percent of businesses in California, while extending job protection for up to 2.7 million workers.

Lawmakers understood that small businesses are the backbone of our economy, so the bill was significantly revised to address their concerns. Still, the business lobby has continued to argue that the bill would unduly burden and increase costs of small employers, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

In 2002, business groups had similar fears about legislation that created California’s Paid Family Leave program. They labeled the measure a “job killer” and argued that it would harm small businesses. However, 10 years after paid family leave was enacted, a study found that employers reported that it had either a “positive effect” or “no noticeable effect” on productivity (89 percent), profitability (91 percent), turnover (96 percent) and employee morale (99 percent).

Even more telling was that small businesses were less likely than larger establishments to report any negative effects. In fact, this year small businesses supported a bill that expanded paid family leave benefits in California.

Guaranteeing parental leave may seem like a daunting mandate, but as history has shown, the fears have not been borne out by the facts. Parental leave is not a common occurrence – one poll found that only 34 percent of small-business owners had one or more requests for family leave in the preceding three years, only a third of which were for parental leave. When asked about the principal problem caused by the employee’s absence, the most frequent response was “no real problems.”

It is understandable for businesses to take issue with a new workplace requirement, but that is no excuse to stall on important legislation that would provide parents with secure employment at a time when they need it the most. Already nine other states plus the District of Columbia have expanded job-protected leave to cover more workers than we do in California.

Parents like Charles deserve better. They deserve to take time off and have their jobs protected when their babies are born because those first few weeks and months is time they will never get back.

Mariko Yoshihara is the policy director & legislative counsel for the California Employment Lawyers Association. CELA is a co-sponsor of SB 654.