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California and New Jersey and the Politics of 12-Week Paid Leave

flickr / Gordon Anthony McGowan

As federal legislators struggle to come to grips with providing Americans a national paid paternal leave policy, state lawmakers are taking matters into their own hands, with mixed results. Currently, two states, California and New Jersey, are moving significant paid parental leave laws through their state legislatures. They could result in bellwether laws that begin to turn the tide, or demonstrate that America still isn’t ready to join the rest of the world.

Of the two states, New Jersey’s paid leave plan will be the first to reach the Governor’s desk. The policy is a significant improvement for workers on the current New Jersey leave laws. It requires that employers provide 12 weeks, rather than the current six, of paid parental leave with 90 percent of wages covered. However, it’s highly unlikely Governor Chris Christie will sign the plan into law given that there is no change in funding, currently provided by a 50 cent payroll tax.

The California law increases leave from the current six weeks of paid leave to 12. It also decreases the number of employees a company must have before providing paid leave from 50 or more to 20 within a 75-mile radius. A similar bill that only provided for six weeks of leave was vetoed by Gov. Jerry Brown last year and the 2017 bill still has a long way to go to reach the Governor’s desk.

Both bills are significant in that they hit the magic 12-week number that is cited by organizations like the American Academy of Pediatricians as the minimal amount of time parents should spend with their child after birth. Not only does a full three months allow parents to care for their newborn, it allows them to establish routines and bond. Both parents being home during this time has been shown by studies to not only increase vaccination rates, but also equality in household duties between mother and fathers and better outcomes for a child due to an increased focus from parents responding to a child’s needs in the first crucial months of life.

Currently, only four states offer some form of paid leave. They include California, New Jersey, New York (beginning in 2018) and Rhode Island. That said, there are other municipalities like San Fransisco, which also guarantee some form of paid leave for either public or private sector employees. But paid leave policies remain a sparse patchwork and cover a thin minority of working Americans, something a federal leave policy would solve immediately if only lawmakers could find some agreement.