SF Maternity Law: A baby step to progress


Photo Courtesy of Tatiana Vdb/Flickr

Kali Persall,
Managing Editor

If you’re a parent-to-be living in San Francisco, congratulations! Come January 1, 2017, you’ll no longer have to choose between your baby and a paycheck; at least for six weeks. On April 21, San Francisco Mayor Edwin M. Lee signed a law that will grant new parents six weeks of fully paid family leave.

It’s no secret that San Francisco has led the state with some bold initiatives. To start, the city’s $12.25 minimum wage eclipses California’s current $10, and will reach $15 four years before the rest of the state catches up in 2022. Now San Francisco will be the first city in the U.S. to mandate family leave that is fully paid. Against the backdrop of one of the only nations in the world that lacks a federally-mandated leave law, the city sticks out like a sore thumb. The way I see it, it’s a thumbs-up to the rest of California.

Under the state’s current Paid Family Leave (PFL) law, California employers are required to pay up to 55 percent of a parent’s wages for six weeks. However, Gov. Jerry Brown signed legislation on April 11 that will increase the state paid wages to 60 percent and 70 percent, depending on the employee’s weekly wages, starting in January 2018.

The PFL is a provision of the State Disability Insurance program, which is funded through payroll deductions and is offered by the Employment Development Department (EDD). The money owed to employees under the San Francisco law will be drawn from this same source.

For businesses with at least 50 employees, the San Francisco law will take effect on January 1, 2017; with 20 or more, the law will be phased in by January 1, 2018, according to the San Francisco Office of Labor Standards Enforcement. Employees must work at least eight hours per week and must have worked at least 180 days prior to the start of the leave period.

“Our country’s paid parental leave policies are woefully behind the rest of the world, and San Francisco is leading on pushing for better family leave policies, as we have on other basic worker rights like requiring paid sick leave and raising the minimum wage,” said Jeff Cretan, Legislative Aide to the Office of Supervisor Scott Wiener.

Still, California is light years ahead of the majority of the country. According to the California Employment Development Department, California became the first state in the United States to enact Paid Family Leave (PFL) in 2002.

California, New Jersey, Washington and Rhode Island were the only states in the nation to provide family leave policies in 2014, reports the Presidential Council for Economic Advisors. Most recently, New York’s Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed legislation that will grant parents 12 weeks of paid family leave to New York citizens in 2018. The cap will be at 67 percent of a person’s wages and will be funded through a payroll tax, according to a press release from the Office of the Governor. Keeping pace with San Francisco, ironically this was part of the law that will raise New York’s minimum wage to $15 by 2018.

The only current federal leave act in the nation, the Family Medical Leave Act of 1993, allows parents up to 12 weeks off through protected leave to care for their child. The catch: The company must have 50 or more employees, and it’s unpaid.

The costs associated with motherhood are still nationally outrageous. According to a UCSF study published in 2014, a healthy vaginal birth free of complications, can cost anywhere between $3,296 and $37,227. This doesn’t include the estimated $12,940 the United States Department of Agriculture has calculated to be the cost of caring for a child in its first two years of life.

Indeed, the situation still looks grim for many soon-to-be parents who are waiting for national legislatures to catch up. Sorry American moms and dads, it looks like you’re still stuck with the either food stamps or daycare for the time being. Take your pick.

“In this time of income inequality, it is lower income workers who have less flexibility in taking time off to take care of their newborns, so this requirement will allow them to take off these precious few weeks without having to worry about paying rent or putting food on the table,” said Cretan. “This ordinance makes paid family leave a more realistic option for low-income parents.”

Critics of the bill argue that full paid leave for both parents will be rough on employers and will take a toll on businesses. To support this concern, San Francisco’s Office of Economic Analysis found that San Francisco businesses could lose $32.3 million dollars annually and increase hiring costs, according to an article by USA Today.

However, according to the Economic Advisors Report, out of 253 businesses affected by California’s current leave law, over 90 percent of employers reported no negative effects on business. Instead, they noted increased profitability and positive effects on turnover rates and morale.

Still, the United States’ maternity laws trail those of the majority of other countries in the world. In his January 2015 State of the Union address, President Barack Obama addressed these shortcomings: “The United States is the only advanced country on Earth that doesn’t guarantee paid maternity leave to our workers.”

Among the countries that offer paid leave, on average, new mothers are entitled to 18 weeks of paid maternity leave, according to a 2015 report from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). Twelve countries offer full compensation and the United States is one of a handful of countries that doesn’t guarantee any pay to new parents.

Even Mexico or Israel, two countries commonly perceived as less progressive than the U.S., both offer 12 and 14 weeks of 100 percent paid leave, respectively.

It has been proven time and time again that these benefits serve both employers and employees well, by minimizing costly turnover rates and maximizing morale and worker productivity.

“It has doubled the average length of leave new mothers take, particularly among women with lower levels of education, unmarried mothers, Latina mothers, and African American mothers,” said Cretan. “Men who take two or more weeks after birth of a child are more involved in direct care of their children after nine months than fathers who take no leave.”

So why can’t the U.S. seem to unify over maternity benefits?

Some companies already understand this, like Netflix, which offers unlimited paid parental leave within the first year after a baby is born or adopted, and Apple, which grants mothers four weeks off before birth and 14 weeks afterward, completely paid.

Six weeks is progress, but it still isn’t enough time. If California can take a hint from San Francisco, we can truly call this a step in the right direction. Still, it’s a baby step; probably about the same size of the tiny, yet monumental one parents will watch their baby take a few months down the road. That is, if baby’s not in daycare when it happens.