In summary

California’s Democratic governor credits his wife and chief of staff for making paid family leave a priority in recent budget negotiations.

Updated on July 2, 2020: The bill passed the state Senate with the bare minimum of votes needed, all from Democrats. Eight moderate Democrats joined Republicans in opposing the bill, citing the burdens it would place on small businesses. It now advances to the Assembly.

California led the nation when, in 2004, it became the first state to give private-sector workers six weeks off with partial pay to care for a new baby or sick family member. But unlike other states that followed, California never required that many employers guarantee workers their jobs back after taking paid family leave — leading millions of Californians to pay into a system they could get fired for using. 

That would change under legislation moving through the Capitol, which would ensure more workers’ jobs are protected if they take paid family leave. With many businesses lobbying against such guarantees, similar proposals have failed in the past. This time, however, the idea has a powerful champion: Gov. Gavin Newsom, who is building on a vow he made last year to expand California’s family leave program.

“I believe that our nation, our state is unbalanced in terms of caring for our workforce and caring for families,” Newsom said last week when asked why he’s pushing to expand job protections over the objections of businesses, already reeling from the pandemic-induced recession.

“So often it’s the case that people are not attending to the needs of their family members, which is impacting society in a very deep way. There’s no substitute for caregiving, for outstanding parenting.”

Current law extends job protection to workers who take leave to care for a sick family member if their company has at least 50 employees, and to workers bonding with a new baby if their company has at least 20 employees. A bill Newsom is backing expands those protections to more workers by applying them to companies of at least five employees.

As they raise four young children, Newsom and his wife, Jennifer Siebel Newsom, have pushed what they call a “parents’ agenda” for the state that includes expanding child care and repealing the tax on diapers, in addition to a more robust paid family leave program. The Democratic governor credited his wife, whose work as a filmmaker focuses on gender equality, and his chief of staff, Ann O’Leary, for his decision to make paid family leave a priority during recent budget negotiations. O’Leary — who was a policy advisor to Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign — has researched family leave systems for many years. Newsom has said she made expanding the program in California a condition of taking the job with him, citing “her resolve to do more, particularly for working mothers, but also across the spectrum for workers generally.” 

And so, for the second year in a row, Newsom has used the process of negotiating a state budget to broaden family leave benefits for Californians. Last year’s budget gave workers an additional two weeks of family leave, bringing it to eight weeks. This year’s budget agreement calls for passing a new law to guarantee workers the right to come back to their jobs after taking family leave.

It would put California in line with most states that offer paid family leave — five of which guarantee workers their jobs back, according to A Better Balance legal center. 

Newsom’s focus marks a big change from the past, said state Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson, a Santa Barbara Democrat who has tried to expand job protections for several years. With powerful business interests fighting her efforts, they yielded mixed results under former Gov. Jerry Brown, who never had children and was known for keeping a very short list of priorities in his negotiations with the Legislature. 

“This had not been on the front burner,” Jackson said.

“But we’ve got a guy now who has four little kids and a wife who is very much… sharing those responsibilities. He is the governor of California and he knows he is also a Dad,” she said. “He is very present in his children’s lives, and this is what this bill is about.”

Jackson’s latest bill — set for a vote in the Senate on Thursday — says employers with at least five workers must grant them up to 12 weeks of leave to care for a new baby or sick family member and guarantee a job “in the same or a comparable position” when their leave is done. Under California’s paid family leave system, eight of those weeks would be paid at 60% or 70% of their normal salary, depending on their income.

Funding to pay workers during family leave comes from a 1% tax on most paychecks. Yet even though almost all workers pay into the system, only half of eligible mothers and a quarter of eligible fathers took paid family leave in 2017, according to the Legislative Analyst’s Office. Many workers who are eligible for paid leave don’t use it, either because they can’t afford to get by on partial pay or because they could lose their jobs if they take leave. 

Manuel Villanueva, for instance, said he asked to take time off from waiting tables at a Los Angeles restaurant when his father became sick with kidney failure and needed help traveling to dialysis treatments, but was told no.

“I was really afraid I was going to lose my job,” he said. “I just kept on working.”

That was a few years ago. Now Villanueva works at the Restaurant Opportunities Center of Los Angeles, a nonprofit organization that informs restaurant workers about employment rights, and is part of the movement pushing for stronger job protections. 

“If a person cannot work because they have a responsibility to take care of someone, and they have been working for this company, the least thing they can do is hold their job,” he said.

Restaurants, hospitals, grocers and farmers are among the many California businesses that signed onto a letter opposing the bill and arguing that expanding job protections “will place a significant burden on employers at a time when they can least afford it.” 

Though employers don’t pay salary to workers who go on leave, the new requirement would be costly for those that hire temporary workers to fill in for them or face litigation in trying to follow the new rules, according to the California Chamber of Commerce and other business groups. 

With many companies reeling from being shut down to stem the spread of the coronavirus, “now is not the time to be placing such burdens on employers who are struggling to reopen and rebuild,” the Chamber wrote.

Lobbying by the Chamber has already resulted in one significant change to the bill — originally, Jackson wrote it to include all employers. But after the Chamber argued that it would be too burdensome on small businesses, the bill now only applies to employers with five or more workers. 

That change is a sign that business interests remain influential in the statehouse dominated by Democrats, a force Newsom will continue to wrestle with if he sticks to his goal of ensuring that every baby born in California can spend the first six months of life with family.

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Laurel Rosenhall

Laurel covers California politics for CalMatters, with a focus on power and personalities in the statehouse. Her stories explain political dynamics in the Capitol and examine how money, advocacy and relationships...