New study shows low uptake of parental leave benefits in San Francisco

The City and County of San Francisco has the most extensive parental leave ordinance in the country. However, a new study by researchers at the UC Berkeley School of Public Health, Oregon Health & Science University-Portland State University, and Stanford University shows that while the law increased parental leave uptake in San Francisco by 13 percent among fathers, there was little change in leave among mothers. Why? Lack of information about the benefits the law offers.

The study showed that lower-income mothers reported even less knowledge of their maternity leave benefits than other mothers, and fewer than 2 percent of lower-income mothers had accurate information about the policy.

While California’s law gives parents 55% pay for parental leave to bond with a child, San Francisco’s Paid Parental Leave Ordinance (PPLO)—enacted in 2017—requires employers to supplement the remaining pay for 100% pay for 6 weeks of parental leave.

“We already know that family leave has important public health benefits; in this work we study San Francisco’s path-breaking paid parental leave ordinance to learn how we can better design policies to help families who want to take family leave,” says William Dow, a health policy and management professor at Berkeley Public Health and one of the study’s co-authors.

“Many low-income workers can’t afford to take family leave at only partial pay, so San Francisco’s effort to provide leave at full pay is an important step forward,” Dow says.

The study found the availability of paid leave in covered employers increased from 45% to 79%. Overall, more than 80% of employers in San Francisco support the PPLO. However, the study found a very different picture when it came to employees.

According to study co-author Julia Goodman, a professor at Oregon Health and Science University-Portland State University School of Public Health, low-income workers were more likely to not understand parental leave benefits and were less likely to work in jobs that were covered by PPLO.

“[These disparities] appear to be due to several factors, including limited eligibility, complicated enrollment rules, uneven job protection, and confusion among employers about their responsibilities,” Goodman says.

Despite public outreach efforts, the study found that only 10% of low-income working mothers were aware of PPLO benefits. Only 33% percent of low-income working mothers were eligible for maternity leave at full pay compared to 65% of working mothers not covered by Medicaid.

Further, both employers and employees were confused by the PPLO legal requirements and additional processes that were required on top of the state’s paid family leave process. Many employers were not helpful in informing their employees about their PPLO benefits.

The study emphasizes that changes are needed to San Francisco’s PPLO in order to make sure that more workers are both eligible and informed about their benefits and that more employers assist their employees in that process.

“To more effectively structure paid family and sick leave in the U.S. in order to increase uptake and realize the public health benefit, our research suggests that paid leave policies should be universal; better integrated across government agencies; and fully paid through a central, tax-financed fund,” Goodman says.

This research has been published during a time where workers are also confused about their rights and sick leave benefits during the COVID-19 pandemic, further highlighting that benefits like these are not entirely made use of without enough information.

“We are hearing a great deal of confusion about the [sick leave] benefit, with employers telling us that sick workers are not taking full advantage of it because of this confusion,” Dow says. “COVID-19 has illustrated once again how important it is that we create a universal paid sick leave benefit that can help protect public health, as well as the economic well-being of families, during both normal times and during pandemic emergencies.”


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