Hannah-Beth Jackson | Credit: Paul Wellman (file)

For State Senator Hannah-Beth Jackson, it was a cliffhanger of a nail-biter. Just three minutes before midnight on the very last day of this year’s legislative session — not to mention the last three minutes left of Jackson’s 14-year career in the state capitol — Jackson managed to wrangle the final vote needed to pass her bitterly fought bill to extend job security protections so California workers can take time off to care for themselves, a newborn, or a sick family member without fear of losing their jobs.

Although Jackson had already secured the votes needed from her own chamber, the State Senate, its fate in the Assembly was anything but certain. Not only was the Chamber of Commerce vehemently opposed, but so too were many moderate Democrats who worried the bill imposed new and potentially onerous requirements on smaller businesses as they struggled to stay afloat in the time of COVID. Jackson, never one to back down, insisted that COVID proved just how vital the protections her bill offered are. 

Jackson was quick to praise the work of Santa Barbara’s State Assemblymember Monique Limón — visibly pregnant — rousting up the necessary votes among her Assembly colleagues. Likewise, Jackson gave credit to Oakland Assemblymember Buffy Wicks, who cast her ballot in favor of the bill, Senate Bill 1383, with a newborn slung over her shoulder at 11:10 pm. 

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While Wicks and her still-breastfeeding daughter provided the night’s photo-finish highlight — Hillary Clinton tweeted her casting her ballot — it was not enough to put Jackson and her bill over the top. It would require six votes taken between 11:10 and 11:57 to find the 10 votes needed to give Jackson’s bill the 50 percent plus one needed. Ironically, the last and decisive vote would be cast by the moderate Democrat leading the opposition against the family leave measure, Assemblymember Joaquin Arambula. The very next day, he would resign his leadership post as chair of the moderate caucus. 

For Jackson — a fiercely outspoken liberal Democrat and ardent proponent of family leave legislation — the night proved a fitting conclusion to the 14 years she’s spent raising hell in Sacramento, though with a four-year interim between the first six years she spent in the Assembly and the eight subsequent years she spent in the Senate. 

Existing state law allows workers in California to take 12 weeks off to bond with newborns or to care for one’s self or sick relatives. And for eight of those 12 weeks, paid leave is provided. “The problem is a lot of workers don’t take advantage of this because there’s no guarantee their job will still be there when they get back. Our bill expands the guarantees that their job will be protected,” she explained. 

According to Jackson, a 2011 poll showed that two out of five workers chose not to take advantage of the paid family leave for which they were eligible out of fear of losing their jobs. “You need to remember that the employers are not paying this money. The employees are paying themselves with money that’s been deducted out of their paychecks, just like unemployment,” she said. 

There is already some job protection for people taking family leave, Jackson stated, just not enough. The new bill, which goes into effect January 1, 2021, will extend job protection coverage for workers employed at companies with five to 20 employees. Right now, those job-security protections are limited to employees who work for companies with 20 or more workers. According to Jackson’s statistics, that will extend protection to 2.88 million additional California workers. 

For workers hoping to take time off to care for themselves or sick relatives, the additional job protection is even more dramatic under Jackson’s bill. Currently, that protection exists only for companies with 50 or more employees. Under Jackson’s bill, employees at companies with five or more workers will be covered as well. That reportedly covers 5.8 million additional workers.

The Chamber of Commerce attacked Jackson’s bill as a “job killer.” Given the number of times Jackson and Chamber lobbyists have crossed swords over the years, that epithet could well be inscribed on her business card by now. 

Opponents of the bill contend it imposes too much of a burden on smaller companies, which will now find themselves forced to hire temporary workers in the meantime rather than hiring — and training — full-time replacements. But more, Jackson’s bill gives employees the right to sue if such protections are not offered. 

Jackson has long insisted that rights without remedies are no rights at all. But for those in the business community, the legislation paints yet another legal bull’s-eye on their collective posteriors. 

In the past eight years, Jackson has introduced eight bills designed to expand California’s family leave provisions. The most recent was passed in 2017 — also decried as a job killer — but that too came after years of legislative struggle. 

Jackson, a leader in Sacramento on issues of pay and gender equity, said the burden of raising children still falls disproportionately on women and that she’s hoping her legislation allows men to participate more equitably in the domestic division of labor. “In the 1950s, we had Ozzie and Harriet and Father Knows Best, where life was always just perfect,” she said, “but that was always a fantasy, and we know better now.” 

The problem, she said, is that big companies cling to the delusion that “employers are our master.” “Well, I’ve got news for them: They are not our masters.”

This year, Jackson managed to get six bills passed by the Legislature. It’s not certain yet how many Governor Gavin Newsom will sign into law, though the governor — a proponent of what he terms a “parents’ agenda” — wasted no time at all signing Jackson’s family leave measure. 

With Sacramento’s legislative session and Jackson’s term in office coming to a close, Jackson — an independent-minded mainstay of the local Democratic Party — might be expected to conduct the political equivalent of a victory lap. But thanks to COVID, such ceremonial theatrics will have to wait. 

COVID seriously intruded on this year’s deliberations, she said, adding that a lot of bills did not get the level of scrutiny they should have received. With politicians and their staff isolated, there were fewer coffees, lunches, and accidental hallway gatherings. Thanks to Zoom, there was no shortage of hot mic moments when intemperate remarks that otherwise would have remained safely under the speaker’s breath would go viral. 

“Fourteen years in this place,” she said with only a semi-sardonic laugh, “and it’s still a mess.” 

Jackson said she definitely won’t miss the grueling early-morning plane trips — 4 a.m. — to Sacramento via Burbank. But there was lot that she will. “I’m going to miss people returning my phone calls. I’m going to miss people laughing at my jokes,” she said. “And I’m definitely going to miss having a seat at the table in the room where it all happens.” 

Jackson said she intends to take more than a few walks on a few beaches, but that she’s hardly retiring from public life. “There’s a lot more mischief to be made,” she said. “But I’m not sure how I’m going to do it.”

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