California can fix the bad math of new motherhood

By Jasmin Tuffaha Gutierrez, Special to CALmatters

The surprise of my pregnancy last Thanksgiving was so exciting at first – crying happily over a pregnancy strip in a pharmacy bathroom. Like many other mothers-to-be, it wasn’t until months later, planning our new lives with a newborn, that I started doing the math on maternity leave.

Turns out, the smart job moves I’ve made–combined with absurd disparities in family leave policies now being addressed through important legislation–may have sabotaged my early days as a new mom.

Having started my career as a full-time journalist in Canada, there would have been no better place to become pregnant. After just 13 weeks of employment, women there are entitled to 17 weeks of pregnancy leave plus 35 weeks of parental leave.

Yes, an entire year of recovery and baby bonding. To boot, my job would have been protected the entire time. And employment insurance would have compensated more than half of my salary.

Did this enter into my thinking at the time? Barely. Every job decision for a childless woman is, well, much like a man. Until we know peeing on a stick will have the desired effect, we make the best career choices for all those living and accounted for.

Fast forward several years, my Canadian newsroom bosses offer me a job in L.A.

Like any news producer, I jumped at the promotion to a new, vibrant bureau, but without realizing the tradeoff I’d be making of cutting my leave time, cutting my benefits and cutting my job protections drastically were I to become pregnant in progressive, sunny California.

Another promising career move soon followed. Getting hired at the big NPR affiliate for L.A. Luckily, it was a large-sized employer and I worked there for seven years–meaning I would be eligible for time to recover from childbirth, followed by 12 weeks of parental leave with some wage replacement. Not as great as the north, but could be worse, which I would soon find out.

Fast forward to the actual timing of my pregnancy: I had just made a common career shift going into media relations for a good cause. But because it’s a small office–fewer than 20 workers–some significant benefits are not guaranteed by law.

With just over five co-workers, I’m allowed Pregnancy Disability Leave, meaning time to give birth and heal, but no time to actually bond with my new baby, even though I’ve paid into the state’s paid family leave insurance fund for nearly a decade.

Equally troubling to learn was that even if my employer was large enough to be covered by the law, family leave rights don’t even vest until after a year of work and my due date is right at the 11th month mark with the organization.

Again, researching family leave laws is not usually involved in career planning, and it was only when I moved into my current job and became pregnant that I realized that I, along with about half the entire workforce in California, don’t have family leave rights.

Our laws that give parents the right to return to their jobs only apply to those who work for larger employers, and only if they have worked for the employer at least a full year and on average over 24 hours per week.

Fortunately, I landed at a workers’ rights organization. It will give me additional leave to bond with my baby and to access my paid family leave benefits–not because the law requires it, but because it’s the decent thing to do. Firing me is not.  Not all workers are so lucky.

For them, they need the law’s guarantee so that they can take family leave without risking their job and financial security.  

That is why Senate Bill 135 by Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson is so critical. It would expand our family leave laws to cover nearly all workers in California.  

Being a pregnant woman in California, in America, is fraught. I don’t feel supported, even as our society romanticizes motherhood. Let’s take a lesson from our neighbors up north, and all industrialized nations, by guaranteeing leave to new parents as a basic right offered to everyone.


Jasmin Tuffaha Gutierrez works for the California Employment Lawyers Association in Los Angeles, [email protected].She wrote this commentary for CALmatters.

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