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California soon could expand the state's family leave law to smaller businesses

Kim Turner holds her daughter, Adelaide, before a rally at San Francisco City Hall in support of paid family leave. (Jeff Chiu / Associated Press)
Kim Turner holds her daughter, Adelaide, before a rally at San Francisco City Hall in support of paid family leave. (Jeff Chiu / Associated Press)

California soon could expand its family leave law to 2.7 million residents across the state, the latest of legislative efforts this session that have sought to assist working parents.

SB 654, dubbed the New Parent Leave Act, is headed to the governor’s desk after it passed out of the state Senate on Wednesday with a 24-12 vote.

The bill would allow parents at smaller companies with 20 to 49 employees to take six weeks’ leave to care for a newborn or newly adopted child, without fear of losing their jobs. Current state law extends only such job protection to those at businesses with 50 or more employees.

The legislation also would allow parents to access the state’s Paid Family Leave Program, which provides up to six weeks of partial wages for some caregiving responsibilities.

Supporters of the bill said it closes a loophole in the state’s family leave law for many employees who already pay for the leave program through payroll deductions and are not eligible for its benefits. But the legislation has faced major opposition from the business community, which has labeled it a job killer, saying it would overwhelm small companies.

On the Senate floor Wednesday, Sen. Jeff Stone (R-Murrieta) said it would hurt small businesses already struggling to meet new minimum wage requirements signed into law this year.

Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson (D-Santa Barbara) argued her bill would impact only 6.3% of California companies, while helping 16% of its workforce. She said she had done everything possible to address the concerns of small businesses through amendments that narrowed the scope of the legislation.

“But we live in a different world today, colleagues,” she said. “It is a world where both men and women are working. It is a world where both men and women want the opportunity to bond with their newborns, and frankly, no parent should be forced to choose between the well-being of their new child and their family’s financial security.”

The vote Wednesday comes as momentum continues to grow for stronger family leave laws nationwide, and as some tech giants in California have rushed to amend their policies.

The state became the first in the country to guarantee workers paid leave to care for a new child or ailing family member more than 15 years ago. But two main challenges have kept many parents from taking advantage of the law: Some could not afford to take time off because of the limited partial wages offered, while others feared they would lose their jobs if they did.

Gov. Jerry Brown sought to address the first obstacle when he signed legislation earlier this year to help low-income families. That allows people earning close to minimum wage to be paid 70% of their salary while on leave, while workers with higher pay, up to $108,000 annually, will get 60% of their salary during leave. The change takes effect in 2018. 

Jackson’s bill seeks to tackle the latter challenge and is a priority of the California Legislative Women’s Caucus, which the senator co-chairs. It faced trouble earlier this year when it was surprisingly killed in an Assembly committee, following friction between Jackson and Assemblyman Roger Hernández (D-West Covina). He was stripped of his committee chairmanship earlier this year after a judge granted his ex-wife a domestic violence restraining order against him  

Legislative leaders in both houses have supported the measure’s revival.

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