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Scott Wiener's Parental Leave Legislation Is a Godsend. But Is It the Best We Can Do?

Proposal is one way among many to give parents some much-needed breathing room. How do we decide?


For non-bazillionaires, San Francisco is a tough place for new parents, even with the six weeks of partially paid leave that California offers. Unless you work for an Apple or a Google (or the city or federal government), chances are your income's going to take a hit at the moment you need it most. California's approach—paying most workers 55 percent of their salary for six weeks—has the distinction of being one of the only mandated paid-leave programs in the United States, even as it falls abysmally short of what parents need. 

That's where Supervisor Scott Wiener comes in, with a 45 percent-size Band-Aid to the rescue. On January 26, he will introduce legislation to require employers with more than 20 workers to pick up the tab where the state program leaves off. If the law passes, it will at last be possible for new mothers and fathers to take off at least six weeks at 100 percent pay. Finally, right? The least we can do, in the fourth most expensive city in the country? Time to break out the champagne and the ovulation calendar to celebrate?

And yet, this is still six weeks we're talking about, not six months. Waiting around for America to embrace Scandinavian-style parental benefits before having kids is the surest way to keep one's DNA out of the gene pool. California, New Jersey, and Rhode Island are still the only states that mandate some form of paid leave for parents and caregivers of ill family members. From a pragmatist's perspective, Wiener's proposal is laudable, important, even overdue. From an idealist's standpoint, it's sad that this is cause for celebration.

Paradoxically, being in a state with some form of parental leave makes it both easier and harder to design a local measure that makes some sense. Easier: Employers aren't left holding the bag; they only have to cover 45 percent—and potentially less if the state steps up with more benefits later. Harder: All the cons of the current system are baked in (which, yes, means that the self-employed are out of luck, as usual). We're still not in Norway. But you knew that already.

California's current program puts the cost burden on employees, who elect to pay for disability insurance before they qualify to take leave. Wiener's proposal forces employers to share the burden, which sounds like a potential recipe for workplace friction. Could requiring employers to shell out backfire, particularly for women? Would a hiring manager at a small business, knowingly or not, look askance at a potential hire of childbearing age? Even though Wiener's proposal extends benefits to both sexes, women are the only ones with the biological imperative to use them (just ask Mark Zuckerberg, who made headlines worldwide for taking a mere portion of his paternity leave). A recent survey of women at Silicon Valley tech companies found that 75 percent had been asked about family life, marital status, and children during job interviews. How would this not come into play? Not just in the tech world, but in insurance offices and private shuttle companies and security firms?

If San Francisco were starting from scratch, we might have the option of something like the model Washington, D.C., is now considering. If it passes, D.C.'s Universal Paid Leave Act of 2015 will provide 16 weeks of paid leave through a fund largely fed by a 1 percent payroll tax on private-sector employers in D.C. Because the tax burden would be proportional to a company's size, some of the larger corporations are worried, not the small ones, says Ashley Fox, communications coordinator for D.C. councilmember Elissa Silverman, who co-introduced the legislation. "They’re concerned about the larger effect it will have on businesses being attracted to D.C. if they're required pay into this fund," she says. Meanwhile, quite a few smaller businesses "have been receptive."

Even if San Francisco wanted to do something like that, it would be a difficult road ahead, says Jeff Cretan, legislative aide for Scott Wiener. "I think we'd have to repeal the state law, or opt out of that program," he says. "If we did a tax, it would have to go to the ballot, and it would be a two-thirds vote."

Wiener says he opted for the current strategy because of the support California already provides. "We are building off that system," he says. It's an incremental strategy that bets on the example of San Francisco and D.C.—and California, New Jersey, and Rhode Island—spurring the federal government to step up. 

One thing is clear: Someone's going to have to step up if all workers are going to have a shot at sanity when it comes time to start a family. Where the employer-paid model breaks down is, inevitably, in the gig economy. California's, and by extension Wiener's, policies are tailor-made for the '90s, before Uber, before everyone and his roommate began cobbling together livelihoods from the growing freelance and contractor economies. D.C.'s and San Francisco's proposals cover workers who are on the payroll, including part-timers, but not contractors.

Wiener sees the legislation as a stepping stone, not the last word on parental leave in San Francisco. “All workers should have time to bond with their children, and this legislation is a first step to get us there," he says. It also may be the easiest step to take. Covering everyone, not just the traditionally employed, is going to require assembling a safety net for which there isn't yet a blueprint in America.


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