Is America changing its mind about paid leave for parents?

San Francisco's first-in-the-nation ordinance offering fully paid leave to all new parents points to growing cracks in America's status as the only developed nation without parental leave.

Jeff Chiu/AP
Kim Turner holds her daughter Adelaide Turner Winn before a rally supporting paid family leave at City Hall in San Francisco, Tuesday, April 5, 2016. The San Francisco Board of Supervisors voted to require six weeks of fully paid leave for new parents – a move that is the first for any jurisdiction in the US.

San Francisco’s decision to become the first place in the United States to offer fully paid parental leave is a landmark amid growing support for such plans across the country.

San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors unanimously passed an ordinance Tuesday making it the first municipality in the country to grant full paid leave to all new mothers and fathers, including lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) couples who adopt or bear children. California has granted 55 percent pay for six weeks since 2004, but San Francisco law now demands that employers pay the remaining 45 percent.

While the tech giants headquartered around the city have made headlines for doling out generous parental leave packages, the San Francisco law is an unprecedented win for lower-paid workers, experts say. Perhaps as remarkable is that the city’s Chamber of Commerce adopted a “neutral” stance, though the small business representatives are normally among the strongest opposition to such measures.

As national support inches America toward rest of the developed world on parental leave, the decision will likely trigger moves by other cities and states – and perhaps even federally, which only a year ago was considered remote, some say.

“It’s one more piece of evidence how attitudes towards parental leave have changed in a short period of time,” says Chris Ruhm, a professor of public policy and economics at the University of Virginia and coauthor of “Time Out With Baby: The Case for Paid Parental Leave.” “This is emblematic of a broader national shift.… We’re likely to see more states and probably more cities putting programs in place. I think there’s some possibility of a national program.”

With the US the only nation in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development not to offer some form federal paid parental leave, states and the private sector have been leading the way.

What states and companies are doing

New York State passed a new law Monday that by 2018 will give all new parents 12 weeks partial paid leave. It was the fourth state to mandate some form of paid parental after California, New Jersey, and Rhode Island. Washington, D.C., is currently debating a paid family leave bill that, if passed in its original form, would grant 16 weeks fully paid leave, with certain conditions.

Among private companies:

  • Twitter is the latest company to have one-upped the states allowing any one of its workers that becomes a parent 20 weeks fully paid, whether they’re the primary caregiver or not.
  • Netflix offers its workers up to one year fully paid to every employee, except in its DVD division.
  • In November, Facebook extended its existing parental leave to all full time employees, citing research that showed many men worried about not spending time with their children. Founder Mark Zuckerberg took two months of paternity leave.

San Francisco’s decision, however, represents a major boon for often marginalized groups that haven’t been able to take advantage of such changes.

For example, California’s existing partially-paid parental leave, generous by national standards, still left many out, says Maya Rossin-Slater, an assistant professor of economics at the University of California.

“Especially lower-paid mothers, lower-educated mothers, minority mothers,” Professor Rossin-Slater says. “These groups tend to take very little time off upon the birth of their children … and I think largely that’s because they can’t afford to or their jobs don’t provide any sort of job security.”

Furthermore, while tech giants have played an important role in promoting more rights for working parents, that alone could fuel inequality if not followed up in the public sphere. Most tech workers, after all, are already significantly advantaged.

“The fact that San Francisco made it at the city level is going to play an important role in reducing that disparity, because you know it’s not just employees of Facebook and Google that are going to get it, but it’s going to be employees that work at the grocery store and the restaurants,” Rossin-Slater says.

Business's unusual response

While tech companies might be able to afford such benefits, small businesses are generally still opposed to such moves. But even on that front hints of a shift are apparent.

The San Francisco Chamber of Commerce’s unwillingness to go on the record saying it opposed paid parental leave surprised a number of experts. “It was striking that the chamber didn’t object to the substance of the bill,” says Jane Woldfogel, an expert in family issues at the Columbia Population Research Center.

The concern is that the San Francisco requirement for employers to pay for the remaining 45 percent for paid leave may prove a disincentive to hiring people more likely to take fully-paid family leave.

The San Francisco law affects businesses with 50 or more workers as of Jan. 1, 2017. Companies with 20 or more employees will have to comply one year after that.

There is still limited research on the impact of paid parental leave on businesses. What research does exist shows no major signs of damaging business, though far more is needed, experts say.

Scott Wiener, the San Francisco supervisor who tabled the bill, said a core reason for the move was in part motivated by a lack of hope Capitol Hill would move on the issue.

How soon any move could happen might depend on the politics of the next president. Both Democratic candidates, Hillary Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I) of Vermont, both have plans to fund parental leave in some way, while none of the Republican candidates have made it a campaign issue.

Yet beyond political cycles, Professor Ruhm of Virginia notes an important shift in the national conversation over the past two years .

“A year ago when the advocates were talking about the idea of national program, I was supportive though it was complete ‘pie-in-the-sky,’ ” he says. “If you asked me about the likelihood of national program in the next four years now, I wouldn’t say it’s 50/50, but I’d say it’s getting up there.”

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