The United States is the only developed nation in the world that does not guarantee workers the right to paid parental leave. On Tuesday, lawmakers in one of America’s most progressive cities took a major step toward addressing what critics have called an international embarrassment by voting unanimously to mandate that employers offer new parents paid leave.
The San Francisco Board of Supervisors voted to grant six weeks of fully compensated family leave, answering advocates who have long argued that such a move is needed because many families cannot afford to take time off work following the birth or adoption of a child in one of the nation’s most expensive cities.
Supporters of the San Francisco measure dismissed claims by critics that the ordinance would place yet another onerous burden upon businesses.
“Every time San Francisco adopts a local pro-worker ordinance, we’re told that it’s going to be the end of the world for businesses,” District 8 Supervisor Scott Wiener, who sponsored the legislation, said at a City Hall rally before the vote. “What ends up happening is the state and sometimes even the federal government follows our lead... I’m confident other cities and states will take notice.”
“It is embarrassing how far behind the rest of world we are in the United States in terms of ensuring access to parental leave,” Wiener added. “We need to stop forcing parents to make the terrible decision about whether to bond with the their child or whether to put food on the table.”
A business lobby group disagreed with the vote.
"They don't necessarily have the resources, they can't absorb the increases in cost, and they feel like it's kind of relentless, it's one thing after the next," Dee Dee Workman, vice president of public policy at the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce, said of small businesses in an interview with the Associated Press. San Francisco already imposes fees upon local businesses which fail to provide health coverage to their workers as part of the city’s universal health care program, as well as other costs and legislation frequently decried by employers including a $15 hourly minimum wage that is being implemented incrementally over the next few years.
“This is one more thing that puts San Francisco businesses at a disadvantage to their regional counterparts,” Rickshaw Bagworks CEO and founder Mark Dwight told the San Francisco Chronicle ahead of Tuesday’s vote. “If we want all our small businesses to move out of our city, then we’re doing the right thing.”
However, business is generally booming in San Francisco and many residents seemed thrilled at the prospect of getting a few weeks off with pay when they start a family, a benefit already enjoyed by employees of technology and other companies that often extend their workers generous paid leave options. Netflix, for example, offers up to a year of fully compensated parental leave.
"I do think employers should be pitching in more," attorney Kim Turner told the Associated Press. "I think we all need more help. It's just so hard to make ends meet with little ones in the house.”
“New babies are very expensive and they need things like diapers and bottles,” Julia Parish, an employee at the Legal Aide Society Employment Law Center, told the San Francisco Examiner. “Low wage workers really need every penny of their paycheck.”
Businesses with more than 50 San Francisco employees must start offering paid leave in January 2017. Those employing at least 20 workers will have until January 2018 to comply.
Under current California law, workers are entitled to 55 percent of their regular pay for six weeks following the birth or adoption of a child, courtesy of a worker-funded state insurance program. The new San Francisco law requires employers to make up the remaining 45 percent of parents’ full pay.
California is one of five states plus the District of Columbia to offer some form of paid parental leave to workers, although San Francisco’s local measure will go further than the rest by requiring employers pay their workers’ full wages during the six-week leave. On Monday, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, signed into law a bill granting 12 weeks of paid parental leave by 2021. In January, New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio signed an order providing six weeks of fully-paid parental leave to non-union city employees, mirroring a 2015 executive order from President Barack Obama that gave federal employees six weeks off after having or adopting a child.
These and other efforts to implement paid parental leave have been staunchly opposed by conservative politicians and many of the business interests that contribute to their electoral campaigns. Despite their professed enthusiasm for “family values,” most US conservatives are loth to support paid family leave, which many of them view as a form of socialism. Backed and funded by powerful corporate lobbying groups like the US Chamber of Commerce and the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), Republican and even some Democrat lawmakers have repeatedly attempted to defeat parental leave measures at the national and state level.
However, supporters note that every developed nation (and many developing ones) on Earth offers workers paid parental leave, ranging from days to a few weeks in some countries, to 39 weeks in Britain, to more than a year for both mothers and fathers in Sweden. Only the United States and Papua New Guinea, where the average annual income is less than $2,000 per year, do not guarantee any paid time off work for new parents.
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