What do the United States and Papua New Guinea have in common?

What do the United States and Papua New Guinea have in common?  According to the United Nations, they are the only countries in the world without any sort of paid time off for new mothers.

In the Mother’s Day edition of his HBO show “Last Week Tonight,” John Oliver, the British comedian who is perpetually incredulous over most things American, juxtaposed the maudlin, corporate exploitation of the holiday with the grim economic realities facing working mothers in this country.  But Oliver noted a tiny bright spot.  Three states, California, Rhode Island and New Jersey, have some sort of limited paid leave for new mothers.

California’s paid family leave program is modest.  Payments are only partial and a worker can be fired for taking paid family leave unless they are also eligible for job protection under the California Family Rights Act (“CFRA”).  Yet, only workers at companies with 50 or more employees and who have been on the job for at least a year are covered under CFRA.  Accordingly, only about half of California employees can actually take advantage of the paid family leave program.

That may be about to change.  Senate Bill 406, currently pending before the California Legislature, would expand the job-protection coverage of the paid family leave program to include smaller companies of 25 or more employees.  It would also expand the definition of family member for whom a worker can take job-protected leave to care for to reflect the realities of modern families, by including grandparents, grandchildren, siblings, and adult children.

Even this modest expansion of the paid leave program has drawn the garment-rending wailing of the Chamber of Commerce, who predictably labeled it a “job killer.”  In the Mother’s Day clip, Oliver mocked the overwrought rhetoric and overblown fears of Congressional opponents of the unpaid Family Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”) in 1992:  “Our businesses shall crumble, or cities shall burn and hungry wolves will roam the streets.”

In reality, a 2012 Department of Labor survey showed only 15% of employers reporting any significant difficulty in complying with the FMLA.   There were no reports of hungry wolves.  A similar study conducted ten years after the enactment of California’s Paid Family Leave Act found that 90% of California employers considered the Act to have a positive or neutral effect on productivity, profit, morale and costs.

Progress in protecting the economic security of families seems to happen only incrementally.  The expansion of California’s paid leave program reflected in SB 406 is a great next step.  Let’s leave Papua New Guinea in the dust!

Watch the John Oliver clip by clicking here.

Curt Surls

About Curt Surls

Curt Surls has been practicing in Los Angeles, specializing in employment law, for almost 25 years. Mr. Surls is a Fellow of the American Bar Foundation, a non-profit professional association honoring lawyers whose careers have demonstrated dedication to the welfare of the community and the traditions of the profession. Prior to opening the Law Office of Curt Surls in July 2012, he was a partner with Bornn & Surls for over 15 years. Mr. Surls was also an attorney with the Oakland civil rights firm then known as Saperstein, Seligman & Mayeda, specializing in employment and civil rights class actions. Mr. Surls also worked for the Department of Industrial Relations and the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles.

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