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Study: California Best State for Laws to Help Working Parents

Seth Sandronsky reports that California rates No. 1 for family-friendly laws — even as new legislation is blocked in Sacramento.

Seth Sandronsky

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Parents (and expecting parents) who balance jobs to raise small kids are faring better in California than anywhere else in the country, according to the National Partnership for Women & Families, which recently released the fourth edition of an 81-page study measuring family benefits. Expecting Better: A State-by-State Analysis of Laws That Help Expecting and New Parents gauges how states have or have not exceeded the federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) of workplace protections for new parents that took effect in 1993.

“California simply has the most protections in place for new and expecting parents of all 50 states and the District of Columbia,” Sarah Fleisch-Fink, NPFW director of workplace policy and senior counsel, told Capital & Main by phone. She said California leads the nation in four main areas:

  • paid family medical leave
  • paid sick days
  • pregnancy accommodations
  • workplace protections for expecting and nursing mothers that surpass FMLA requirements

With the exception of Missouri, all of the 12 states receiving an “F” for failing to pass laws to improve the FMLA are right-to-work states. Right-to-work laws, which govern 26 states, weaken collective bargaining rights and union organizing.

Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Idaho, Michigan, Mississippi, Nevada and Oklahoma received F grades, in part, for failing to “expand upon federal rights or protections for new and expecting parents who work in the private sector,” where the vast majority of workers are employed. In these states, according to Expecting Better, there are “no laws beyond the federal FMLA that guarantee job protection or leave for new or expecting parents who work for the state.”

Sebrina Owens-Wilson, a director with the nonprofit, Oakland-based Partnership for Working Families, pointed out that forward-looking policies created at the city level have in turn spurred California’s family-friendly laws that improve on the FMLA. “These municipal policies changed the dialogue and expectations of employers to help pass California’s progressive laws for working families,” she told Capital & Main by phone.

In a related trend, economic justice work in the Golden State is sparking a national political discussion – the 2016 presidential campaign is a case in point. Such a dynamic is blowing wind into the sails of proposals to boost the federal minimum wage past its current $7.25 an hour, where it has been since 2009.

Enacting a series of policies to stabilize economic security for the most vulnerable working parents who are low-income and people of color is key to creating the political environment needed to expand the FMLA, Owens-Wilson said. “That focus has worked really well in California.”

California is a rock-solid blue state. It is also a minority-majority state, with the world’s sixth largest economy – and the lone state to receive an “A” rating from Expecting Better. Still, there is room to improve domestic laws and policy for parents who work outside the home. One goal, Fleisch-Fink said, is to expand the paid family leave law to make it job-protected.

California lawmakers have recently had mixed results expanding family benefits, however.

Senate Bill 1166, the New Parent Leave Act that State Senator Hannah-Beth Jackson (D-Santa Barbara) introduced February 18, would have expanded California’s current protected parental leave law to employers with payrolls of five to 50 workers, mandating that employees receive 12 weeks of parental leave. The measure failed passage in the Committee on Labor and Employment June 22, but last week Democratic lawmakers amended SB 1166 as SB 654, keeping the original language. It would now apply to companies with 10 or more workers, who would receive a guarantee of 12 weeks of job-protected maternity and paternity leave after the arrival of a newborn or adopted child. SB 654 now moves to the Assembly Labor and Employment Committee.

Organized labor, the American Civil Liberties Union of California and the Western Center on Law and Poverty backed SB 1166. Opponents included the Civil Justice Association of California, the National Federation of Independent Business, the Western Growers Association and the California Chamber of Commerce, which called the bill a “job killer.”

When she co-authored a work-scheduling bill, Senator Connie Leyva (D-Chino) thought she could avoid the job-killer label by reaching out to the Chamber of Commerce for its input. However, SB 878, which would have compelled employers to give their workers seven days’ notice of work scheduling to help them plan family life, bit the dust in the Senate Appropriations Committee this spring – after being branded a job killer.

“I thought initially that bringing in CalChamber and other stakeholders into the process would be more helpful than it was,” Leyva, a past head of the California Labor Federation, told Capital & Main by phone. “We did learn a lot speaking with all of the opposition. I hope that when the work-scheduling bill is reintroduced we can incorporate some of the opponents’ suggestions, but not in a way that waters down the intent of the bill.”

Leyva vows the bill will return for consideration in 2017. “I am completely committed to the issue of reliable work scheduling,” Leyva said, “having spent 30 years either working or representing grocery workers.”

Paying attention to new and growing industries, such as the app-based service-sectors that hire on-demand workers is vital, according to the Partnership for Working Families’ Owens-Wilson. “We don’t want to allow on-demand employers to undercut the progress made for working families.” The on-demand economy, she added, fractures stable employer-employee relationships.

Making labor “flexible” prioritizes the interests of employers over workers, an equation that upends living conditions for all workers and not just those with families. To wit, on-demand employees work as nonunion independent contractors, and not as company employees. That nonemployee status makes it hard for workers to access vital benefits.

In a bid to elevate workplace security for on-demand workers, Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez (D-San Diego) introduced but then withdrew Assembly Bill 1727, known as the California 1099 Self-Organizing Act. Prior to shelving the bill, she said it would ensure “that the millions of Californians who aren’t treated as employees, including workers in the evolving gig economy, simply have the option to organize and collectively bargain for better pay and working conditions for themselves for the work that they perform.”

However, according to Gonzalez, complex legal issues required further discussions for AB 1727, with lawmakers such as Assembly Judiciary Committee Chair Mark Stone (D-Monterey Bay). “AB 1727 is dead for the year, but I will bring back another version of this bill next session,” Assemblywoman Gonzalez told Capital & Main.

Meanwhile, San Jose voters will decide on a local measure, “Opportunity to Work,” on the November 2016 ballot. Proponents include Silicon Valley Rising and the South Bay AFL-CIO Labor Council.

This initiative would compel firms with more than 35 employees to offer paid hours to existing part-time workers first before making new hires. It would increase take-home income and nudge part-time employees closer to full-time status, also improving their eligibility for employer-paid health-care benefits.

“The [Opportunity to Work] initiative will help combat the epidemic of underemployment in San Jose,” the labor council’s Dianna Zamora-Marroquin said in an email. “This is the first initiative of its kind aimed at providing part-time employees across all industries access to the hours needed for a reliable, livable paycheck.

“It is estimated that the initiative would provide nearly 64,000 hourly employees in the city of San Jose, who are primarily women and people of color, with the opportunity to access critical work hours.”

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