Landmark Legislation for Women and Families Led by Women

Landmark Legislation for Women and Families Led by Women

The new year marked the beginning of several new laws that will help improve the economic security of women and families across the state. These measures made up a package of bills that were advanced by the Stronger California Advocates Network, a coalition of over 30 organizations dedicated to promoting policy reform around four basic pillars of women’s economic security: fair pay, affordable child care, family-friendly workplaces, and poverty reduction.1

In total, Governor Jerry Brown signed seven Stronger California priority bills, including:

SB 63 by Senator Hannah-Beth Jackson (D-Santa Barbara) increases workplace protections for new parents who work for small businesses. The bill provides 12 weeks of unpaid maternity or paternity leave for Californians who work for companies with 20 to 49 employees and protects these new parents from losing their jobs and health care benefits.

AB 10 by Assemblymember Cristina Garcia (D-Bell Gardens) requires public schools serving low-income students in grades 6 to 12 to provide feminine hygiene products in half of the school’s bathrooms at no charge.

AB 168 by Assemblymember Susan Eggman (D-Stockton) prohibits all employers, including the Legislature, the state and local governments, from seeking salary history information about an applicant for employment and requires an employer to provide the pay scale for a position to an applicant upon reasonable request.

AB 273 by Assemblymember Cecilia Aguiar-Curry (D-Winters) expands the eligibility criteria for subsidized child care services to parents who are taking English as a second language or high school equivalency courses.

AB 480 by Assemblymember Lorena Gonzalez Fletcher (D-San Diego) provides CalWORKs welfare-to-work participants assistance with diaper costs for children under three years old. A signing message can be found here.2

AB 557 by Assemblymember Blanca E. Rubio (D-Baldwin Park) makes CalWORKs homeless benefits immediately available to applicants who are victims of domestic violence.

Senate Bill 54 by Senator Kevin De León blocks use of state funds to fuel mass deportations and to separate families.

This article will describe two key victories by California Employment Lawyers Association (CELA)3, in coordination with the Stronger California Advocates Network and key allies in the Legislative Women’s Caucus4. Notably, these two wins were primarily led by the women attorneys of CELA, Equal Rights Advocates (ERA)5, and Legal Aid at Work 6.

The first key victory was Assembly Bill 168,7 authored by Assemblymember Eggman, which now prohibits employers from asking job applicants about their salary history. In 2015, California and Massachusetts first proposed legislation that would limit employers from asking applicants about their salary history and basing salary decisions on prior pay. Massachusetts’ version was signed into law, but the California bill was vetoed.

Governor Brown opted to sign only one of three pay equity bills that made it to his desk that year – notably, the California Fair Pay Act8, a landmark piece of legislation authored by Senator Jackson that made significant improvements to our existing equal pay laws. The Governor vetoed the bill addressing prior salary and one other bill that would have required state contractors to submit pay data based on race and gender to the state. His veto messages stated he wished to see how the Fair Pay Act worked before making further changes.

Two years later, after dozens of other cities and states around the country passed similar legislation to ban inquiries into prior salary, Assemblymember Eggman decided to make another pass at it in California. Assembly Bill 168, was designated as a priority bill for the Legislative Women’s Caucus and had the backing of the Stronger California Network. Buoyed by wins across the country, and propelled by stories like Aileen Rizo’s (a former math consultant for the Fresno County Office of Education who was paid thousands of dollars less than her male counterpart because of her prior salary, even though she had more experience and more education), the bill sailed through the legislature and ultimately won the Governor’s approval.9

As a result of this bill, employers will no longer be able to ask applicants about their salary history information. To be clear, an employer may still ask applicants about their salary expectations – indeed, that is the more appropriate question. Applicants may also, on their own, offer their prior wages to try to negotiate a higher salary with a new employer, but that salary history information still cannot be relied on if it would result in paying an employee of the opposite sex less for doing substantially similar work. The upshot is, women in particular will now no longer be held down by historical wage inequities when the work they are performing or their job qualifications justify paying them more.

Another significant victory for the Stronger California Advocates Network was the signing of the New Parent Leave Act, Senate Bill 63,10 authored by Senator Jackson. This bill was also a reintroduction of a previously vetoed bill by Governor Brown. In 2016, Senator Jackson introduced a bill to provide more parents with job-protected parental leave to bond with their new babies, but Governor Brown vetoed the bill because of business opposition and concerns over litigation. This following year, Senator Jackson reintroduced the New Parent Leave Act, offering 12 weeks of job-protected parental leave for workers at companies with 20-49 employees.

The New Parent Leave Act helps fill a gap in our existing state and federal family leave laws (the Family Medical Leave Act and the California Family Rights Act), which grant parental leave rights only to workers at companies with 50 or more employees. This meant nearly half of the workforce had no job-protection rights at all to bond with a new baby. Significantly, this also meant that half of the workforce risked losing their job if they took advantage of California’s Paid Family Leave Program, which offers wage-replacement benefits for baby-bonding leave, but no job-protection.

The limitations in our parental leave laws have placed a significant burden on women in particular, who are often the ones forced out of the job market or lose job opportunities or pay when job-protected parental leave is not available. In addition, when women have to go back to work early or men cannot take time off to bond and help with the new baby, it takes a significant toll on the health of the mother and the development of the child11 and can also have a long-term impact on gender roles12 within the family.

The Stronger California Network, along with women and family groups, workers’ rights advocates, the health community, and even some small businesses rallied behind the New Parent Leave Act, picking up from the momentum of the prior year’s bill. In fact, soon after the bill was reintroduced, Small Business Majority released a poll showing that over 70% of its small business members supported providing job protection for companies with at least 20 employees.13 In addition, prominent health practitioners joined the lobbying efforts with compelling studies and reports on the short- and long-term health benefits of baby bonding leave.

To address the Governor’s veto message from the previous year, the new bill added a mediation pilot program that would allow the parties to mediate a dispute under the new law through the Department of Fair Employment and Housing, as an option before going to court. Ultimately, even though the bill still had significant opposition from the Chamber of Commerce and other business groups, the Governor signed the New Parent Leave Act into law. With the enactment of this new law, 2.7 million more California workers will have job-protection rights to take parental leave after the birth or adoption of a baby.

The Governor signed the New Parental Leave Act, along with the six other bills on the Stronger California priority agenda, at a signing ceremony at Women’s Empowerment in Sacramento last October, joined by the California Legislative Women’s Caucus and many of the Stronger California advocates. 14 These wins reflect the power of the community and network of women advocates, and the ability of our state to continue making progress, despite federal regression, on important issues facing women, children and families.