In 2006, then-Supervisor Michela Alioto-Pier became the first elected official in San Francisco to give birth while holding office. But under city policy, elected and appointed public officials were not allowed maternity leave, and she had to continue working to the best of her abilities.
“There were some moments where I thought, ‘I cannot believe I’m in this situation,’” said Alioto-Pier, who had to breastfeed during meetings. “We’re considered the most liberal city in the United States and we’re having a fight over an elected official who is pregnant and their ability to vote? There was a lot of pushback.”
Voters approved a charter amendment Alioto-Pier put forward that same year, requiring the City Charter to include a parental leave policy and allowing remote participation for public officials. Fifteen years later, such a policy remains missing for new parents holding office in San Francisco. It’s unclear why The City never moved to fulfill the voter’s wishes.
As the world emerges from the pandemic, and new mothers return to the workplace, the maternity situation for San Francisco’s public officials may soon be coming to an end.
Supervisor Myrna Melgar this week introduced legislation that sets a standard of at least 16 weeks of leave for new parents. It would also allow teleconferencing, with conditions required under state law, when unable to be physically present to care for a child recently born or taken in through adoption or foster care.
“We just want to make sure that there’s a consistent policy,” Melgar said. “First of all, you’re valuing them as full humans. You’re giving them the assurance that they can contribute to public life and have a life of their own. In having a strong democracy, you want all voices.”
There certainly have been high-profile examples of new mothers in government in recent years. Sen. Tammy Duckworth of Illinois was the first U.S. Senator to give birth in office in 2018. That same year, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern also gave birth while in office. In September, California State Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon ignited anger in denying Oakland Assemblymember Buffy Wicks the ability to cast a key vote remotely weeks after giving birth; she had to travel to the State Capitol with risk to her newborn with jaundice.
As it stands now, officials serving on San Francisco’s city boards and commissions must hope that their appointing officer — either the Board of Supervisors president or mayor for volunteer positions — will accommodate leave and not opt to replace them. The latter could mean losing both their position and access to health care offered by The City to appointed officials.
The lack of assurances makes it harder to recruit and retain women on commissions, Melgar said. That can also stymie the pipeline of elected officials like herself, who served as Planning Commission president before running for supervisor last year, and leave out valuable perspectives from policymaking.
Calls for reform go beyond parental leave. Malia Cohen, former supervisor now serving as Police Commission president and elected to the California State Board of Equalization, found her roles much more manageable while working remotely. She took a three-month leave in the fall to care for her daughter, now 9 months old.
“Being able to dial in remotely to these meetings has been a game-changer for working mothers,” Cohen said. “This should absolutely be a priority, up there with the parklets. The rules that prevented us from meeting online are archaic and need to be revamped, period.”
The legislation is just the first step in retaining those quality-of-life improvements made possible for many under the pandemic. Melgar and Cohen are working toward a charter amendment that would set the stage for a broader teleconferencing policy beyond parental leave. People with disabilities or dealing with illnesses also benefit immensely from remote work.
But it can only go so far under the state’s Brown Act, which sets requirements on government meetings to keep them accessible and transparent. Any teleconferencing must disclose the physical location and be open to the public, which may be a deterrent if conducting meetings from home. It also doesn’t account for new technology like Zoom and Microsoft Teams. For the time being, the disclosure requirement has been suspended under emergency coronavirus orders.
Melgar is also working with Assemblymember Blanca Rubio, who represents West Covina and Baldwin Park in Southern California, on state legislation to amend the Brown Act. Assembly Bill 703 would remove notice requirements when it comes to teleconferencing, which would be allowed as long as enough members participate in one location open to the public.
Alioto-Pier recalls the idea of remote work and voting being so foreign, particularly before a male-dominated Board of Supervisors.
“When you get down to it, there wasn’t a desire to push forward legislation for elected women to have a comprehensive and effective way of fulfilling their obligations,” Alioto-Pier said. “At the beginning it looked like something a little chancy and a little reckless when it wasn’t. It has become the norm whereas before it was not.”
And as with many other San Francisco initiatives, Melgar feels her legislation could set an example for the state and country, where many jurisdictions lack a universal parental leave policy for public officials. Redwood City in 2019 adopted a maternal leave policy for board, commission, and committee members.
“The United States is remarkably behind other countries when it comes to parental leave,” Melgar said. “I’m glad we’re in the moment where we can really take this up.”