Study finds SF paid family leave measure has yielded limited benefits so far

More fathers take parental leave, but many employees unaware of program

San Francisco’s Paid Parental Leave Ordinance, the nation’s first fully paid parental leave policy when it passed in 2016, has had a limited effect so far, according to a new study published Tuesday.

Researchers found the ordinance somewhat increased the number of fathers who took parental leave after it went into effect in 2017, but low-income families are often unaware that it exists.

“Employers don’t necessarily understand what they’re supposed to do. Worker’s don’t really understand what they’re eligible for,” said Julia Goodman, an author of the study, and an assistant professor of Oregon Health & Science University and Portland State University School of Public Health.

Goodman and her colleagues found that fewer than 2 percent of respondents who were recipients of Medicaid had heard of the ordinance and received accurate information.

“Clearly San Francisco hasn’t done nearly enough to raise awareness among workers that they’re entitled to six weeks of fully paid parental leave,” former Supervisor and state Sen. Scott Wiener, who authored the legislation, said in a statement. “The City needs to significantly step up its outreach to ensure people understand their benefits.

Lower-income mothers reported less knowledge of their maternity leave benefits than those who have higher-incomes. Goodman noted that “the city and a lot of nonprofits within the city did a lot of work to try to raise awareness … but the complexity of the law makes it so challenging.”

Signed into law by The City’s former mayor in 2016, the Paid Parental Leave Ordinance requires employers to compensate workers who receive state benefits for family leave. While California’s Paid Family Leave program provides a portion of wages for eligible employees to care for newborns for eight weeks, the City’s measure mandates qualifying employers to compensate for the remaining amount.

There is growing evidence to show that paid family leave policies can benefit the health of infants. Hospital admissions for infants declined after the state’s Paid Family Leave program came into effect. Mothers are more likely to breastfeed under paid family leave. And breastfeeding may reduce infants’ risk for developing asthma, diabetes and possibly improve their cognitive development.

While the lack of awareness among workers may have, in part, limited uptake of paid leave, the fact that the majority of mothers in covered jobs were already taking at least twelve weeks of leave may also explain why there was little changes in the number of paid leave claims among mothers, according to the researchers.

Meanwhile, 13 percent more men filed for paid leave between 2016 and 2017 compared to those in surrounding counties.

And Goodman said that the law may have improved people’s financial security as they would have had full pay for six weeks of leave.

The restrictions in the ordinance, she added, could have also reduced the number of claims for paid leave. The measure exempts small employers with less than twenty employees and it only covers private-sector employers with workers in San Francisco. Workers must have worked at least eight hours a week for the qualified employer, with at least 40 percent of weekly hours located in The City. And employees are only eligible if they have worked for the employers for at least 180 days.

To expand the measure, Goodman suggested that lawmakers should mandate small businesses with less than 20 employees compensate for paid family leave.

“We think that’s a big part of why lower-income workers are less likely to even be eligible for the law,” she said.

But Goodman acknowledged that such a mandate can be burdensome for small businesses. To relieve smaller firms of their financial stresses, other states like Oregon now cover workers at small firms regardless of whether their employer pays into the state program. Oregon also offers grants to small businesses in the program to help offset costs of hiring temporary replacement workers.

State lawmakers in California should implement a fully paid family leave policy, Goodman said. After all, low-income workers are less likely to be able to afford family leave under partial pay.

California has extended its Paid Family Leave program from six to eight weeks beginning this month, providing up to 90 percent of low-wage workers’ salaries during their leave. Accordingly, San Francisco also expanded its fully paid parental leave compensation to eight weeks starting this month.

“Paid parental leave is so important in fostering healthy families,” Wiener said. “No parent should have to choose between bonding with a new child and putting food on the table.”

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