San Francisco Sets a New Standard for Paid Leave in the US

By Angela Su Workers in San Francisco gather at a rally in support of the paid parental leave measure. (Jim Wilson/The New York Times)

Last Tuesday, San Francisco became the first city in the United States to guarantee fully paid leave for all new parents, including those who adopt, essential for same-sex couples. This landmark measure, passed unanimously in the Board of Supervisors, followed another record-setting paid leave law passed the week before by New York State, which made it only the fourth state in the U.S. to offer some form of paid leave. The quick succession of paid leave laws being implemented across the U.S. suggests that the country is on the threshold of a political shift towards the generous paid leave policies commonly found in Europe. San Francisco’s measure, while it has its flaws, is an invaluable step towards the reform of the outdated labor laws in the U.S.

Before New York’s new paid leave policy, which covers only non-unionized workers, only three states in the U.S.—California, Rhode Island, and New Jersey—offered some form of paid leave, although all three only guarantee a fraction of pay. Nationwide, about half of workers in the U.S. are covered by the federal Family and Medical Leave Act which offers 12 weeks of unpaid leave. The state of family leave in the U.S. dates all the way back to the 1930s, when most families could afford to have one parent, usually the mother, stay at home to take care of the children instead of working. Since then, there has been only little incremental change to labor laws, and many large sweeping changes in the labor force and economy. While the gay marriage success was realized through the aggressive execution of a carefully-planned multi-year strategy, and supported by ample funding, the movement for paid leave has been disjointed, erratic, and halting at the federal level. So why now is the U.S. seeing such swift, seemingly sudden change in paid leave?

One reason is that in general, neither the government nor businesses are paying for it, and thus, will have little opposition towards it. In California, workers on paid leave are paid from employee-financed public disability insurance, which accumulates its funds by taking a portion of workers’ paychecks. Another, more driving reason, is the increasing need for paid leave in the U.S. due to economic changes in the past couple decades. While, in the past, families could afford to have only one earner per household, a generation’s worth of declining real wages in the middle and lower income spectrum has made it more necessary for families at those levels of income to send two earners into the workforce, and subsequently made it more difficult to arrange time to take care of children.

A final reason is the quintessentially American tide of social consciousness that is sweeping the labor force from the bottom up. If passed, paid leave laws would benefit a large portion of the labor force, but not the small percentage concentrated in technology, an industry that has lead the United States in example, by providing generous paid leave policies in a competitive bid to attract workers. Netflix offers an entire year of paid leave to salaried workers. Google, Facebook, and Apple offers 18, 16, and 18 paid weeks respectively. And given San Francisco’s close proximity to Silicon Valley, a concentrated hub of liberal, successful tech workers, it’s not unlikely that what we’re seeing here is the result of the demands of struggling low-income workers, who see higher earning workers receiving generous competitive paid leave.

One potential problem with San Francisco’s new paid leave measure is the fact that, unlike most paid leave laws in the U.S., it’s partially funded by employers. California offers its workers 55 percent of their wages for six weeks after the birth of a child, for which the payments come from the employees paychecks’. In San Francisco, the remaining 45 percent will be paid for by employers, which increases opposition from business owners. Since San Francisco is a predominantly liberal city, it’s not surprising that the measure was widely supported, the only opposition coming from a Small Business Commission, which argued that paid leave should be dealt with at a state or federal level instead. It’s unlikely for such measures to be passed so swiftly and smoothly across the U.S., especially if they are funded by employers, which will create the misconception that paid leave benefits workers at the expense of businesses, and is overall, detrimental to businesses. In reality, paid leave increases the likelihood of women returning to work after giving birth. Although this may seem counter-intuitive, women who are forced to return to work soon after giving birth often choose to quit instead because they cannot afford a nanny or because they feel too keenly the pressures of an inflexible unaccommodating workplace. It also increases employee productivity after parents return to work, and the health of both mother and baby, facts which benefit both employees and employers.

Now that San Francisco has fully paid leave, it is ahead of the rest of the country, whose abysmal state of paid family leave lags far behind the rest of the developed world. The United States is the only major industrialized nation without federally mandated paid leave laws. In the U.S., many of those who are eligible for the Family and Medical Leave Act cannot afford to take the leave because it’s unpaid. Even in California, only 25 to 40 percent of eligible workers have taken advantage of its paid leave laws. While some of this can be attributed to lack of information and knowledge of the policies, many who are aware of the opportunity to take paid leave will not, because California only pays a portion of wages.

As a whole, U.S. family leave is outdated and has not adapted sufficiently to evolving economic stresses and family structures in the labor force. In the U.S., nearly half of all workers do not have any access to paid leave, partial or full. Despite its flaws, San Francisco has set a standard in labor policy for the rest of the U.S. to aspire to.