Reproductive Freedom is on the Line in California, and it’s Not What You Think
by Shannon Hovis, Director of NARAL Pro-Choice California
Advocates of reproductive freedom know that a right without access is a right in name only. That’s why, even as abortion remains legal in all 50 states, we continue to fight for meaningful access to abortion care. But while California has made strides in expanding access to reproductive healthcare, we’re falling shamefully short in ensuring Californians can care for their families in times of need. Today, California leaders have the chance to change that.
Like access to abortion, job-protected paid leave is critical for ensuring that every Californian has the freedom to control their own lives and futures. While this has always been true, the COVID-19 pandemic has underscored the fact that every worker deserves the dignity and financial stability that paid leave offers. And yet, while 96% of California workers pay into the Paid Family Leave program, 40% cannot access paid leave when they need to care for their own or a family member’s illness for fear of losing their job, and 25% have no job protection when they take leave to bond with a new child. It is a cruel system that demands Californians pay into a program they cannot use without the risk of losing their job. It’s also a reality for millions.
Today, California leaders have the opportunity to right this wrong by passing SB 1383, which will extend job protection to the vast majority of workers in the state, guaranteeing that they can access Paid Family Leave benefits without the fear of being fired. All that the employer has to do is let them take the time off unpaid. This change alone will close the gap in coverage so that only 8% of eligible workers are excluded. Oregon, Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York, and Rhode Island already guarantee universal job protection for paid family leave. California is behind.
NARAL Pro-Choice California is known for our abortion rights advocacy, but the truth is that meaningful access to paid family leave is equally essential for reproductive freedom. Paid family leave is associated with long-lasting improvements in maternal, physical, and mental health. It’s connected to reduced infant mortality, increased breastfeeding rates, and positive health impacts for children that can be seen into early elementary school and beyond. With paid family leave, caregiving responsibilities become more equally distributed. Evidence shows that fathers who take parental leave are more engaged with their children for years to come, promoting healthier children and gender equity. Women participate in the labor force at higher rates, and new mothers are more likely to return to work after childbirth.
As COVID-19 rages across the country, it may not come as a surprise that the United States is one of only two nations in the world that does not guarantee paid family leave. No one should be forced to choose between feeding their families and staying healthy, and yet, with more than seven million California workers ineligible for job-protected leave, every day people who are sick or have been exposed to COVID-19 must make the impossible choice: go to work or risk losing their job. What’s worse is how such heartless policies disproportionately hurt communities of color — who are already experiencing the highest rates of coronavirus — as BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, people of color) are more likely to work for small employers, work part-time jobs, and live in multi-generational households.
With the state Assembly expected to vote on SB 1383 today, reproductive freedom is on the line in California. And yet even with a Democratic supermajority, SB 1383 barely passed off the Senate Floor last month. This despite the fact that 83 percent of California voters support protecting all workers’ jobs during Paid Family Leave. California families deserve better, and we expect our elected leaders to do the right thing and pass SB 1383.