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What are we doing for working families?

It’s a good day when you find some inspiration at work. Tuesday was a good day.

Along with colleagues here at Next Generation, I attended the Department of Labor (DOL) Forum on Working Families in San Francisco. It was one of several meetings the Department of Labor is hosting around the country, leading up to a White House Summit in June.

Headliners like Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi and Secretary of Labor Thomas Perez described the problems facing working parents: too little time to be at home, too few supports to make it possible to be a good parent and a good employee, and for many, wages that just aren’t keeping pace. Congresswoman Pelosi told us about a bus tour she and other members of Congress will be kicking off June 1 to hear from real families about what challenges they are facing.

While on the tour, she’ll hear stories like the one told by Mary Ignatius, statewide leader of Parent Voices and a member of the California Work & Family Coalition, during the San Francisco summit. Mary is a working mother of two little boys, the younger of whom was born with club feet. Because of California’s paid family leave program, she was able to stay at home with him during the most critical part of his treatment.

Stories like this cement in my mind why paid family leave, earned sick days, quality child care, and equal pay are critical for all families. It’s no coincidence that these are the very issues Next Generation’s Children & Families team is hard at work on. Below is a rundown of what’s going on in all four areas in California:

Paid Family Leave: California was the first state in the nation to pass a paid family leave law, allowing parents and family members to take time off when their families need them. The federal Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) is available to employees across the country but offers no wage replacement, so taking time off to care for a new baby in most states means doing without pay during that time. The program is administered by the state Employment Development Division (EDD), and it has helped over a million family members since the program launched in the summer of 2004. One big problem dogging the program, however, is low awareness.  Many people who could benefit from the program simply don’t know about it and therefore never fill out the paperwork to claim their benefit. What are we doing to fix that? We have a budget proposal in the legislature now that would carve out a small portion of the EDD fund that pays for outreach and education. The good folks at the EDD would have the authority to spend some money to get the word out to those who know the least about paid family leave, and importantly it has no general fund impact! Sounds reasonable, right? The proposal goes to budget conference committee soon, and then to the Governor’s desk if it passes.

Earned Sick Days: If you’re a working parent, being able to take a day off is a necessity. Children get sick all the time, and they spread their germs to their parents and everyone else. If you can’t take a day off with pay to deal with emergencies, you may be putting your family’s financial well-being at risk. No one understands the stress of this situation better than single parents, including Assemblymember Lorena Gonzalez, who is the author of AB 1522. The Healthy Workplaces, Healthy Families Act would give all working Californians a guarantee of three paid sick days per year, establishing a minimum labor standard for a big proportion of the country’s workforce. It passed a major hurdle by making its way out of the Assembly’s Appropriations committee, and just passed out of Assembly where it will head to the Senate for debate in early June. See our brief on the bill and how it stands to benefit all of California’s workers.

Quality Child Care: Now that 40 percent of America’s breadwinners are women, child care is a concern for almost every family. California has some great programs for early learners, but the system overall has suffered dramatic cuts over the past decade, and quality is too often a luxury that working families cannot afford. Next Generation co-founder Jim Steyer made some powerful points about the need for early education this week. A number of proposals are swirling at the Capitol, but they share some common principles: more slots, more quality, and more pay for the people who teach and love our children all day long. Legislators seem to be interested in restoring and improving the system for young learners: two important bills are moving in the legislature that may hold the keys to greater access to quality early education for California’s neediest kids. See Ann O’Leary’s comments on these bills. Whether California makes concrete steps to improve opportunities for young learners will then ultimately be up to Governor Brown.

Equal Pay: Families living on the minimum wage are on the brink, and cannot keep up, let alone be the parents they want to be for their children. The speakers at the summit on Tuesday were unanimous in their calls for an elevated national minimum wage. Workers who are tipped – waitresses, nail salon workers – can legally be paid as little as $2.13 an hour. California is a leader on this one: Governor Brown signed an increase to the state minimum wage, which will bring it to $10 in 2016. And it applies to tipped workers, as well. Various communities throughout California have passed their own livable wage ordinances. The California Work & Family Coalition is helping communities throughout California to move these efforts along.

More to come on these issues as the Legislative season continues – fingers crossed that the result will be more supports for California’s working families.

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