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For 'Workers and Families,' San Francisco Passes Landmark Parental Leave Law

"We shouldn't be forcing new mothers and fathers to choose between spending precious bonding time with their children and putting food on the table."

Supporters of the legislation rallied at San Francisco City Hall on Tuesday ahead of the board's vote. (Photo: AP)

"Taking the lead" in prioritizing workers and families, San Francisco on Tuesday became the first city in the U.S. to mandate six weeks of fully paid parental leave.

The new measure closes the financial gap in previous legislation, which allowed new mothers and fathers six weeks of semi-paid leave—giving them 55 percent of their paychecks through state disability insurance. Under the new policy, which was approved unanimously by the city's Board of Supervisors, employers are required to pay the remaining 45 percent.

"Our country's parental leave policies are woefully behind the rest of the world, and today San Francisco has taken the lead in pushing for better family leave policies for our workers," San Francisco Supervisor Scott Wiener said after the vote.

Employers with at least 20 workers will have to provide those benefits for those who work at least eight hours a week and spend at least 40 percent of their workweek in San Francisco. Employees are only eligible to take advantage of the policy after working for a company for 180 days. The legislation applies to both births and adoptions, covering same-sex and opposite-sex couples.

Advocates say the policy could boost momentum for a nationwide shift on parental leave. "It creates a new idea in culture that this can happen," Jenya Cassidy, statewide director of the California Work and Family Coalition, told the Guardian on Tuesday. "In that way, it's a really bold move."

In Ohio, House Democrats recently proposed legislation that would provide workers 12 weeks of semi-paid leave to take care of a new baby or sick relative.

Supporters of the San Francisco law pointed out that the U.S. is the only developed country in the world that does not offer full paid parental or maternity leave to workers, and California is one of only five states that has some form of family leave on the books. New York recently signed legislation that mandates between six and 12 weeks off, but only covers 50 percent of a worker's average pay.

San Francisco's policy is significantly more advanced than any legislation in the country for new parents.

"We shouldn't be forcing new mothers and fathers to choose between spending precious bonding time with their children and putting food on the table," Wiener said. "I'm proud San Francisco is once again taking the lead in putting our workers and our families first."

In October, CNN conducted a comprehensive review of more than 20 studies researching the health impacts of paid parental leave. Most of that research, reporter Kelly Wallace said, concluded that allowing family leave "can have a significant positive effect on the health of children and mothers," including by reducing infant mortality by as much as 10 percent and improving long-term mental health in parents.

Women who were given a more generous maternity leave were 18 percent less likely to suffer from depression 30 years later, one study found.  Economist Eileen Appelbaum and Rhode Island state Senator Gayle Goldin also noted last year: "Studies find that fathers who take longer leaves have more involvement in the lives of their children, have more confidence as parents, and spend more hours with their children during workdays."

The law also increases employer support for low-income workers, who otherwise may not be able to afford to take parental leave, noted Julia Parish, staff attorney at the Legal Aid Society-Employment Center.

"This legislation will make Paid Family Leave a more realistic option for low-income parents, who typically can't afford to bring in just half of their pay, as provided by California's leave program," Parish said. "It will help improve the health of children and parents, and it will increase gender equity by encouraging both parents to take leave."

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