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Wednesday, Nov 29, 2023

VICA, Small Business Fight Family Leave Legislation

VICA, Small Business Fight Family Leave Legislation By JACQUELINE FOX Staff Reporter Back in January, Belinda Mendoza’s 19-year-old son was diagnosed with and then hospitalized for lupus. She faced taking several weeks off from her job as a customer service representative to care for him, but had only accrued about one week of paid vacation time. Her employer, United Concordia in Woodland Hills, offers three days of emergency family time off with pay, but even that wouldn’t have been enough. So Mendoza enlisted a family member from out of the area to help care for her son while she remained at work. Her co-worker, Raquel Juarez, recently sucked up the entire two weeks of vacation time she had coming to bury her father. If the bill, introduced by State Sen. Sheila Kuehl, a Democrat representing portions of the San Fernando Valley, is signed into law by Gov. Gray Davis, it would make California the first state in the nation to provide such workers with up to six weeks paid leave to care for an ailing family member or domestic partner, an aging parent or a newly adopted baby, for example. Although workers would fund a portion of the program through contributions to the state’s disability fund, many in the Valley business community say giving employees that much paid time off would cut into productivity levels, putting a financial strain on small businesses in particular. “This is an absurd piece of legislation,” said Richard Paegelow, owner of Inline Translation Services in Glendale and co-chairman of the Valley Industry and Commerce Association’s state issues committee, which lobbied against the bill. “The aims of the measure are very noble. But the only out for a small business that can’t afford to allow an employee the time off is to eliminate the position or fire the worker.” Under the terms of the measure, employers would be required to pay workers 55 percent of their salary up to a maximum of $490 per week, which is the same amount now paid on all state disability claims. A portion of the employee’s total salary would be paid by the state but, at this point, it is not clear how much. Employees would pay approximately $2 a month into the state’s disability insurance fund, which would help fund the program. The final version of the bill is actually a watered-down version of the one introduced by Kuehl earlier in the year. She says she met with representatives from the California Chambers of Commerce and other business groups to discuss their concerns and potential amendments. In the end, the bill was changed from 12 weeks with pay, funded entirely by the employer, to the current six-week proposal with funding now at least partly the onus of the worker. Even though many small local companies, like Mike’s Roofing Company in Van Nuys, try to accommodate their employees’ needs to tend to family matters, six weeks, they say, is a long time to have to cover for someone. “This would devastate me,” said Mike Quiroga, owner of Mike’s Roofing. He said he has just 10 workers in the field and two more to handle administrative duties. “I can’t afford to cover one person that long,” said Quiroga. “I figure that it would cost me roughly $5,000 for one employee to take six weeks off. Productivity levels would drop by about three quarters and I really don’t know what I’d do.” The original bill guaranteed employees would get their jobs back when they returned. The final measure says business owners with 50 or fewer employees do not have to hold jobs for employees who take advantage of the program. The implication is that a smaller company is not as equipped to absorb the loss of an employee as a larger firm and should be given the option of replacing a worker out of hardship. Also, the measure now gives the employer the option of forcing the employee to apply up to two weeks of any accrued vacation time to the allowed six weeks. “Frankly, I’m disappointed in the business community because I made every effort to meet their demands for making this bill more palatable to the business owner, especially small business owners,” Kuehl said. “I just don’t understand how they can be unhappy.” Under current federal and state guidelines, workers are eligible for up to 12 weeks unpaid time off for family emergencies, and their employers must hold their jobs while they are out on leave. The problem with that legislation, says Kuehl, is that only wealthier workers can afford to take advantage of it. For low-wage earners, one or two days off without pay can have devastating ramifications. According to a recent survey conducted by the U.S. Department of Labor, 78 percent of the workers polled said they would not be able to afford unpaid time off. Despite the widespread opposition to the measure, Kuehl said roughly half of the states across the country have similar bills pending. So far, Davis has not taken a position on the measure, but he has until Sept. 30 to sign it or veto it. Many predict he will approve the bill in an attempt to repair strained relations with labor groups. But this isn’t the first piece of legislation impacting business to hit the governor’s desk this year. Davis, running for re-election in November, earlier this year approved a measure that calls for increasing workers’ compensation benefits by about $2.5 billion beginning next year. Paegelow predicts the current version of a paid family leave bill, if approved, is likely to be expanded by a new legislature in 2003 to boost the leave time from six weeks back to 12 and force employers to pay a portion of the costs of the program. He also said he thinks the program is unfair to workers because everyone would be asked to contribute to a program that, unless they are guaranteed their jobs after a leave of absence, they aren’t likely to take advantage of. “The people they (supporters of the bill) aim to help, they are only going to hurt in the end,” said Paegelow. But workers unions say employees, particularly low-income earners, are already suffering and deserve protections for emergencies. “Six weeks is such a small amount of time, if you think about it,” said Julie Butcher, general manager of the Service Employees International Union, Local 347. “Any civilized culture should be committed to figuring out how families make ends meet and work with them to help them sustain themselves in a crisis.”

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