Who Benefits From San Francisco’s Paid Leave For New Parents?

Jul 11, 2020

Back in 2017, San Francisco became the first city in the U.S. to offer new parents their full paychecks while they miss work to bond with their babies or adopted children.

But according to a study published this week in the health policy journal, Health Affairs, the historic law has limited reach among low-income families, who arguably need the benefits the most.

The study found that, among new mothers, low-income women were much less likely to understand the benefits or be eligible for them. That’s partly because these employees tend to be in jobs not covered by the ordinance, according to the study’s lead author, Julia Goodman, an assistant professor in the School of Public Health at Oregon Health and Science University.

“The intent of this policy was to provide full pay so that lower-income workers would be able to take advantage of them,” Goodman said. “But then some of the choices that were made in terms of who’s eligible, who’s covered, end up excluding those very workers.”

San Francisco’s Paid Parental Leave ordinance builds on California’s family leave program, which offers new parents between 60 and 70 percent of their wages for six weeks. In 2017, the city went further, requiring firms with 50 employees or more to cover the rest of workers’ paychecks. Now the city’s ordinance applies to all businesses with 20 employees or more.

Goodman and her colleagues set out to investigate whether San Francisco’s policy enabled more new parents to take time off, especially among low-income families who couldn’t get by with the state’s partial wage replacement program.

Researchers dug into data from the California Employment Development Department (EDD), which manages the state’s paid family leave program, to assess whether more people in San Francisco were taking leave.

Thirteen percent more fathers opted for paid time off in the first year and a half after San Francisco’s policy was implemented, but there wasn’t a real change among mothers, she said.

Historically, many men have not chosen to take paternity leave, so the finding that the program enticed more men to take leave in San Francisco made sense to Goodman.

“There’s just a lot more room for improvement among fathers,” she said.

But why weren’t more mothers taking up the maternity leave benefits available to them? The researchers next conducted a survey of 1,300 mothers living in San Francisco and other Bay Area counties who gave birth in 2016 or 2017, before and after the ordinance went into effect.

To gauge women’s income, the researchers asked whether women were covered by Medicaid, the public health coverage for low-income people known as Medi-Cal in California.

They found that, among mothers working in San Francisco, only 10 percent of those covered by Medicaid were aware of their maternity leave benefits, compared with 60 percent of women without Medicaid.

In addition, only a third of these low-income workers were in jobs eligible for the city’s paid parental leave law, compared to two thirds of their wealthier counterparts.

“San Francisco’s paid leave ordinance has made really important strides making sure that a lot more new fathers are accessing paid leave, and that has really important implications for gender equity, for caregiving throughout the life of the child,” said Julia Parish, a senior staff attorney at the nonprofit Legal Aid At Work.

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“But we also know that too many people are excluded. And so we need to fix those gaps to make sure that people have the same equitable access to these really fundamental policies to promote and protect health,” she said.

Seventy-six percent of employees in San Francisco work for firms with 20 or more employees, according to EDD figures

City officials said businesses of that size are better equipped to handle the costs of the paid parental leave ordinance than smaller firms.

Sarah Owens, a spokeswoman for Mayor London Breed, defended the policy in a statement, noting it is providing more financial security to the many families who are using the benefits, something not measured in the study.

“Choosing between caring for a new child or putting food on the table should never be a choice that a new parent should have to make,” said Owens. “This program is a national model, encouraging many more families, and both mothers and fathers, to take parental leave.”

Owens also said that while the city welcomes the researcher’s evaluation of the program, it “may not fully represent the current situation in San Francisco.” She pointed out that the researchers surveyed mothers who gave birth in 2017, but the policy was not fully implemented in its current form until 2018.

Goodman said the process to apply for the benefits is complex, which may reduce the number of people who claim them.

“One way that it could be simplified is if they said now all businesses in San Francisco are covered … that would go a long way,” she said.

Alternatively, the state could expand its policy to provide full pay for lower income and other workers, she said.

City officials added they’ll continue efforts to inform workers about the program, especially in primarily non-English speaking communities.

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