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California lawmakers take quick action to advance expansion of paid family leave

State Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson wears a mask and speaks behind plexiglass on the floor of the California Senate
State Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson (D-Santa Barbara) on Thursday urges lawmakers to approve her measure to expand job protections to more people who take time off to care for a family member.
(Rich Pedroncelli / Associated Press)

California would require some of the state’s small businesses to offer job-protected leave to new parents and workers who need to care for sick family members under a proposal championed by Gov. Gavin Newsom that cleared the state Senate on Thursday.

All employees in the state already pay into California’s family leave program, which provides workers with partial wage replacement for eight weeks when they take time off to bond with a newborn or to care for a sick child or family member. However, only larger employers are required to hold a job open for a person accessing the benefit, leaving some workers to pay into a program they don’t feel they can use without fear of losing their jobs.

Under Senate Bill 1383 by state Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson (D-Santa Barbara), employees who work for a company with five or more workers would be eligible to take 12 weeks of job-protected leave. Currently, companies with 50 or more employees are required to provide 12 weeks of leave to care for a family member. The threshold for parental leave is lower, allowing 12 weeks of job-protected time off for workers at companies with 20 or more employees.

The state does not require leave to be paid by the employer, and the bill would not change that. Employees already pay into the state’s family leave program, but many do not apply for the paid time off because the wage replacement is too low or they worry they will not have a job to return to.

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“When you take family leave, you are essentially calling in the savings account that you have created,” Jackson said Thursday.

The bill awaits a vote in the Assembly this month. If approved and signed into law by Newsom, it will be effective Jan. 1, despite being fast-tracked as part of recent budget negotiations in which provisions are usually effective immediately.

SB 1383 drew concerns from business groups and Republicans, who said struggling businesses can’t afford more mandates. The California Chamber of Commerce has fiercely opposed past efforts to expand unpaid family leave and included SB 1383 on its annual “job killer” list, which highlights laws corporate interests say will hurt employment and the economy.

“This coronavirus has decimated our economy,” state Sen. Melissa Melendez (R-Lake Elsinore) said. “And I don’t know when it’s going to come back. None of us do. But I do know that the small businesses are the ones hurting the most.”

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SB 1383 would make it illegal to deny an employee’s request for 12 weeks of unpaid job-protected leave during any 12-month period in order to bond with a new child or care for family members. It also revises a previous bill that would have allowed employers to require spouses that work for the same company to share the 12 weeks of leave, instead of granting both parents the full time off.

A state law allowing women to take up to four months of job-protected pregnancy disability leave while continuing to receive employer-paid health benefits would also apply to businesses with five or more employees.

Jackson has for years attempted to expand job protections for California workers. SB 1383 initially would have required all employers, regardless of how many employees they have, to provide 12 weeks of job-protected leave while a worker takes time off to care for their child, parent, spouse or themselves.

SB 1383 was passed as part of budget bills, meaning it was permitted to skip the typical policy discussions that accompany the legislative process. Opponents — which included Democratic lawmakers — urged fellow legislators Thursday to stop fast-tracking the bill in order to allow for more input from affected businesses.

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Jackson pushed back, saying the much-needed benefit has been studied at length.

“This is not something that requires further analysis,” she said. “This issue has been analyzed for years, for decades.”

The Senate approved the bill with the bare minimum votes needed to pass Thursday, with five Democrats breaking with the rest of the party’s members in refusing to embrace the proposal. State Sen. Anna Caballero (D-Salinas) pushed back against what she described as pressure to vote for the bill, saying she was told she was not a good Democrat or member of the women’s caucus if she voted against it.

Caballero noted that business owners are already panicking about how they will survive the economic catastrophe brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.

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“Many of them will never open again,” Caballero said. “Many of them are struggling to stay afloat.”

In 2004, California became the first state in the nation to create a paid family leave program.

“It was an achievement having California lead on this issue,” said Senate President Pro Tem Toni Atkins (D-San Diego). “But that was just the beginning of the work on this issue.”

Atkins said Thursday’s vote would drastically expand who would be able to take parental leave or care for a sick loved one by ensuring those who already pay into the system can benefit from it.

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“Providing a mother with the ability to return to their job 12 weeks after giving birth to me is simply righting a societal wrong that has never been fixed,” Atkins said. “Does it mean that it’s easy, or that it doesn’t come without cost and challenges for the business, for the community, for society? No, I acknowledge the challenges. But I weigh those challenges against my own life experiences.”


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