Despite pandemic woes, California bill to accommodate working parents fails

As Member of Parliament Buffy Wicks (D-Oakland) was battling COVID-19 last week and caring for her two young children, she bemoaned the failure of efforts to require employers to make more accommodations for working parents.

She had pulled JoJo, 5, and Ellie, 22 months, out of summer camp and nanny care due to the virus and she too had just tested positive.

Wicks noted that as a state legislator, she comes from a “great place of privilege” and is able to stay at home today. But “it’s different when you have three jobs in the service sector,” she said.

“Before I had kids, I had no idea how hard it was to juggle everything at once,” she said from her home in Oakland. “You need flexibility.”

Wicks authored Assembly Bill 2182, a law that would have extended job protections to workers attending to “family responsibilities” and prohibited employers from firing workers for sudden parenting needs.

The bill would have created anti-discrimination provisions for carers and required supervisors to accommodate workers when it comes to unforeseen circumstances, such as school and daycare closures, as long as it doesn’t place an “unreasonable burden” on the workplace.

But the bill, which was backed by a coalition of unions and social justice organizations, failed to make it through the Assembly’s Appropriations Committee, a key gatekeeper body that decides whether legislation with a price tag goes ahead.

The California Chamber of Commerce called the bill a “job killer” and claimed it could result in unlimited time off and expose employers to litigation.

Dozens of employers’ organizations opposed the bill, warning that “family responsibilities” is too broad a protected classification and would allow workers to challenge “any adverse employment act” on behalf of parenthood.

“The reality is that an employee will probably call that morning and say they can’t show up for work, and the company will be forced to initiate or face litigation,” said Ashley Hoffman, a political advocate for the California Chamber of Commerce , in a law hearing, urging lawmakers to vote against the bill. “By passing this bill, we are giving small businesses another vague mandate.”

A similar bill by Wicks also failed in the legislature last year, but she says she plans to keep trying. Other states, including Connecticut, Delaware, and Maine, have passed similar laws.

Wicks became an icon for working mothers in 2020 when she brought her newborn into the State Assembly after her request to vote remotely while on maternity leave amid the pandemic was denied.

Hundreds of parents across the country reached out to Wicks, saying the moment resonated with them as they struggle to balance work and personal life amid mass school closures.

“My hope at the time was that there would be a big awakening to the need for more flexibility for caregivers. I thought that given what we just went through, we would have a different understanding of parental responsibility now,” Wicks said.

It’s also a women’s rights issue, Wicks said. The US Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that of the more than 1 million workers who left the workforce due to school and kindergarten interruptions in 2020, 80% were women, who disproportionately shoulder care responsibilities.

As California emerges amid attacks on access to abortion as a bastion for women’s rights, it’s important that state leaders recognize that progress can be made here, too, said Assemblyman Cristina Garcia (D-Bell Gardens), chair of the state Legislature Women’s caucus .

While bills prioritized by the faction on reproductive rights have made it through the legislature, Garcia pointed to other gender equality bills focused on issues such as pay gaps that have failed this year.

“We’ve made progress and I want to acknowledge that, but that doesn’t deny the fact that we still have many more steps ahead of us,” Garcia said. “As progressive as we are, we still have a lot to do.” Despite pandemic woes, California bill to accommodate working parents fails

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