New Law Gives Parents More Flexibility at Work

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For California parents, the days of having to choose between their jobs and tending to childcare or school-related needs are over.

As of Jan. 1, a new law in the Golden State allows working parents to use their paid sick days to care for a child during a childcare or school emergency — and to take job-protected time off to find and enroll kids in childcare or school — without risking discrimination or termination.

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Per Senate Bill 579, which was signed into law by Gov. Jerry Brown on Oct. 11, employers with more than 25 workers must provide up to 40 hours per year (not to exceed eight hours a month) for parents to attend to family emergencies such as tending to a sick child or a school closing because of a terror threat. Under the new law, the pool of eligible employees is also expanded to include stepparents, foster parents, grandparents, and other persons who essentially act as a parent to a child.

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“Existing law allows workers the ability to take time off to participate in activities of the school or licensed child day care facility of his/her child; however, this time must be either unpaid or taken using a vacation, personal leave, or compensatory time off,” according to the state’s Senate Floor Analyses report of the bill, issued in July. “The author and proponents of this bill believe that more flexibility is needed. … Proponents argue that parents need assurance they will not lose their job when they must leave work to attend to the well-being of their child. They believe that by allowing working parents to take time off for these important reasons, the Legislature will strengthen its support for working mothers and fathers by helping them keep their jobs while fulfilling their parental obligations. Proponents argue that this bill also benefits employers by strengthening employee morale and job retention for working parents.”

A few other states have laws like this, including Vermont and Louisiana, but the California statute is broader than others because it requires the employer to make leave available for any form of unscheduled school closure (think snow day) and provides for leave if a child is sent home from school for reasons other than illness, such as suspension, Elizabeth Tippett, an assistant professor at the University of Oregon School of Law, tells Yahoo Parenting. “Other state sick-leave laws only honor school closures where the closure relates to a public-health emergency.”

Employment law expert Jeffrey M. Hirsch, a professor at the University of North Carolina School of Law in Chapel Hill, tells Yahoo Parenting the law is also unique in that it’s “a pretty significant expansion of what the federal FMLA [Family and Medical Leave Act] provides.”

And while he says there’s not much likelihood that California’s move will create a domino effect of other states enacting similar laws, Hirsch has hope that individual companies may follow suit. “I see this as part of a trend that includes some private-sector employers providing better leave,” he says. “As more people experience and expect such leave, there may be more of a national push to give similar leave to more employees.”

Companies, in fact, may opt to follow California’s lead simply for administrative purposes — to make policies uniform for workers in all of the states in which they have offices, Marcia L. McCormick, director of the William C. Wefel Center for Employment Law and professor of law at St. Louis University, tells Yahoo Parenting. “They’ll go with it just so it’s easier,” she adds.

But no matter how or why the protected time off is administered, McCormick says it’s an important achievement that it’s offered. “Generally speaking, it’s impossible, more than at any other time previously seen, to maintain some kind of moderate middle-class life,” she says. “Both parents often have to work, and the only way they can do it is to have childcare or kids in school. That makes figuring out childcare and getting kids established in school really essential to being able to make both parents able to work and keep the family going. So making sure that employees can take the time they need when they cannot have childcare or kids in school — or even to arrange those things — makes a lot of sense. Working parents can therefore maintain their job, their standard of living.”

Even with the risk of the new law reinforcing gender stereotypes (McCormick thinks women will be more likely to take advantage of the policy and then perpetuate the idea of mothers as primary caregivers), she says the law is “really just smart in terms of economic stability.”

Top photo: Kelly Knox/Stocksy

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