By Jenna Gerry
With unprecedented bi-partisan support, a bill that would expand parental leave to 2.7 million more of California’s working families is on Gov. Jerry Brown’s desk. Introduced by Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson (D-Santa Barbara), SB 654, the New Parent Leave Act, would extend six weeks of job-protected bonding leave to California workers at companies with at least 20 employees within 75 miles of the employee’s worksite.
This bill addresses one of the biggest barriers workers face when trying to take Paid Family Leave — knowing that their job may not be there when they get back. This bill is remarkable not only for what it will provide to millions of California workers but for the justified bi-partisan support it received on the Assembly floor.
Here in California, the state Chamber of Commerce has consistently put every bill expanding the right to take job-protected parental leave on its infamous “Job Killer” list. In the past, a bill’s placement there has ensured that no Republican legislator would support it, and it has often meant that few to no moderate Democrats would either. Indeed, it can be the kiss of death for progressive legislation, even in our Democratic-controlled Legislature. So, as SB 654, prominent on the “Job Killer” list, headed to the Assembly floor in August, Jackson and the bill’s sponsors were not sure if we had the 41 votes we needed. But something miraculous happened.
After hearing her fellow Republicans voice staunch opposition, Assemblymember Melissa Melendez (R-Murrieta) stood up to speak in support of SB 654. She described her own experience of deciding to leave the military when she became a mother — in part because she would have received only six weeks off after giving birth. She could not imagine having to leave her child that fast. Melendez called on her colleagues to consider that we guarantee the job of any member of the military reserves if they are called to active duty. And she asked whether “the birth of a child is less important than service to one’s country.” She also challenged past rhetoric from both sides of the aisle justifying votes against parental leave measures.
When the final vote came down, nine Republicans joined 45 Democrats in favor of SB 654. We hope this was a turning point, and our state and nation can now transcend partisan politics to understand, finally, that family leave affects us all. As Melendez put it, “Republicans and Democrats agree that family is important, that children are important. And, if you believe that, you have to put your money where your mouth is.”
California’s health community is also speaking out for SB 654. More than 120 California health care professionals and 16 health care organizations — including the American Academy of Pediatrics’ California chapter — delivered a letter to Governor Brown this week urging him to sign it. “This is about clear empirical evidence,” said one signatory, Dr. Paul Chung of UCLA, “showing that the health and well-being of parents and their children — the present and future of our state’s economic productivity — are improved by job-protected paid parental leave.”
In addition to my organization, Legal Aid Society-Employment Law Center, several groups that advocate for policies to support the viability of working families cosponsored and helped promote SB654: the California Employment Lawyers Association, Equal Rights Advocates, and the California Work and Family Coalition (which counts these groups and many more among its members).
Now it is time for Governor Brown to make parental leave a reality for millions more California workers, especially because they’re already funding six weeks of it through payroll deductions. But parental leave is about more than the bottom line; it is about ensuring the wellbeing of California families and the state as a whole.
Jenna Gerry is an attorney at Legal Aid Society – Employment Law Center (LAS-ELC), where she advises workers struggling with family and medical crises and participates in legislative advocacy to expand family-friendly workplace policies. LAS-ELC is a co-sponsor of SB 654, along with the California Employment Lawyers Association, the Work and Family Coalition, and Equal Rights Advocates.