California workers at small companies may soon be able to take up to six weeks off work without fear of being fired when they give birth, adopt or foster a new child.
Lawmakers in the state Assembly approved Senate Bill 654 on a bipartisan 43-15 vote Tuesday. The bill now faces one more vote in the Senate, where a stronger version already passed, before it can be sent to Gov. Jerry Brown.
The measure wouldn't require companies to pay employees for the time off, but it would expand the state's existing family leave job protections for anyone -- man or woman -- with a new child within a year of their birth, adoption or foster placement. It was a top priority of the Legislative Women's Caucus, noted Assemblywoman Toni Atkins (D-San Diego), who framed the bill as much larger than a women's issue.
"As long as only mothers are permitted parental leave, child care will always be women's work," Atkins said. "This is a measure to bring some equality and support to families."
Debate on the measure was unusually personal Tuesday as men and women talked about their children's and grandchildren's births -- and it led to some surprising support from Republicans who usually vote with the Chamber of Commerce.
Assemblywoman Melissa Melendez, a Republican from Lake Elsinore and Navy veteran, acknowledged that she doesn't normally vote against the chamber.
"This bill is listed as a job killer bill, so it might surprise you to know I am not standing up in opposition to it," she said. "We keep having these conversations about supporting women, right? But every time we have something like this come up, we always find a reason to not support it. And somehow it always revolves around money."
Melendez, now a mother of five, said she left the Navy in part because she didn't want to leave a newborn in child care. She acknowledged that allowing an employee to leave a small business that depends on them for up to six weeks is a burden. But she noted that the government already protects jobs for some small-business employees.
"Any member of the guard, the reserves, the military, if they are recalled to active duty today, their job is guaranteed by their employer no matter who it is, guaranteed, because their country needs their service. So is the birth of a child less important than service to one's country?" she asked.
Currently, California's family leave laws apply only to businesses with 50 or more employers. SB 654 would include businesses with 20 or more employees within 75 miles of one another, meaning a business with multiple job sites would have to comply even if there are only a handful of workers at each location.
And because many employees at these types of companies already pay into the state's family leave fund, they could qualify for state payment while they are off work. Its author, state Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson, cited a 2011 Field Poll that found two out of five California workers are eligible for six weeks of paid family leave benefits, but didn't use them because they feared repercussions at work.
The measure would apply to employees who have been at a company for more than a year, and would also protect a worker's employer-paid health insurance while they are on leave. Jackson estimates it would affect 6 percent of California businesses and 16 percent of the state's workforce.
The bill has been watered down since it was first introduced, but was still vociferously opposed by the California Chamber of Commerce.
Assemblyman Don Wagner, a Republican from Irvine, said it is burdensome and unnecessary.
"Somehow for the first 200-plus years of this country's history, we managed to raise our children. ... We managed to bond with our children, at the same time we still managed to do the business that still needs to be done," he said.
The measure was also the subject of an interesting personal dispute between lawmakers.
SB 654 was originally introduced as Senate Bill 1166. It passed the state Senate, but in June died in the Assembly Committee on Labor and Employment after four male members of the committee --including the committee chair, Assemblyman Roger Hernandez -- abstained from voting on the bill.
Many saw the lack of votes as payback by Hernandez, who was accused by his now-ex-wife of physically abusing her during their three-year marriage.