Why California needs stronger parental leave policies

Why California needs stronger parental leave policies

By Menaka Fernando

At first glance, a cultural shift appears to be occurring in the country when it comes to parental leave. In the past year, companies like Facebook, Microsoft, Accenture and Netflix have instituted generous paid parental leave policies that give parents the ability to take time off from work to bond with a new child. However, while paid parental leave may be becoming more accessible to high-wage earning professionals, it remains impossibly out of reach for many workers who risk losing their job if they take any time off after having a new child.  It’s worth noting that Netflix’s parental leave policy glaringly excluded low-wage workers from its benefits.

Last week, Senator Hannah-Beth Jackson (D-Santa Barbara) unveiled a new legislative proposal that would dramatically improve access to parental leave for all California workers by addressing one of its biggest barriers — job protection.

The reality is the patchwork of existing protections for workers who need to take parental leave are woefully inadequate. The California Family Rights Act and the federal Family and Medical Leave Act provide 12 weeks of unpaid leave and job protection, but these laws only cover employees who work for larger companies with 50 or more employees. This leaves over 40% of California’s workforce ineligible for job-protected leave because their employer is too small.

Because nearly half of the workforce is not covered by our family leave laws, employers can punish workers for taking time off to care for a new child.  As a workers’ rights advocate, I often hear stories of employees – particularly low-wage earners – whose careers are slow-tracked, whose hours are restricted, or who are simply fired for taking or even requesting family leave.

Even more troubling is that workers without job protection are unable to take advantage of the state’s Paid Family Leave (PFL) program, which provides partial wage replacement benefits for those who take family leave. Studies have shown that low-wage workers who qualify for these benefits often cannot use them even though they pay into the program.  A 2011 Center for Economic and Policy Research study of the PFL program showed that the ability to use parental leave is far greater for salaried employees (mainly managers and professionals) and high earners (those earning over $20 per hour plus employer health insurance) than for those in hourly and low-quality jobs.

In the same study, 37% of respondents expressed concern that if they took PFL, their employer would be unhappy, their opportunities for advancement would be affected, or they might simply be fired. At a time when financial security and healthcare coverage are so important, the risk of losing one’s job to take leave to care for a new child is simply a risk that many new parents cannot afford to take.

Senator Jackson’s bill would alleviate that risk by extending parental leave rights for new parents (including domestic partners and adoptive or foster parents) who work for employers with 5 or more employees.

The need for expanded and equitable access to parental leave in the state cannot be understated.  The benefits of parental leave on the health and welfare of the economy and our state’s working families have been well-documented.  Research shows that paid family leave, particularly when there is job protection, increased new mothers’ wage growth and future employment rates.  Fathers who take parental leave are more engaged with their newborns, promoting greater gender equity at home and at work. In addition, evidence strongly suggests that children enjoy many short- and long-term benefits from parental leave including better health and  higher high school graduation rates.

While it is encouraging that good corporate policy is pushing the conversation on parental leave forward, it’s time for the Legislature to act. The protections of Senator Jackson’s bill will help ensure the physical, psychological, and economic health of all of California’s working families, and not just Silicon Valley executives.

Menaka Fernando is an associate attorney at Outten & Golden LLP, where she represents individual employees in litigation and negotiation, and a member of the California Employment Lawyers Association.

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