CALIFORNIA, USA — Progressive Democrats were fighting an uphill battle as they pushed for a new law allowing more Californians to take time off from work to care for a baby or sick family member. With business groups lobbying hard against it, the proposal had split Democrats and, as Monday’s conclusion of the legislative year drew closer, appeared at risk of failure.
Assembly member Buffy Wicks didn’t want to let that happen. An Oakland Democrat who campaigned as a multitasking mom, sometimes bringing her toddler with her to the Capitol, she was on maternity leave after giving birth to her second child in late July. Wicks knew the family leave bill was on shaky ground and wanted to help it pass, so that more Californians could have an experience like her own — at home with her newborn, confident she could return to her job when her maternity leave was done.
“We do have paid leave in the Assembly, and I do have that kind of flexibility. But many, many women don’t across the state,” Wicks said. “So I thought it was critical that that bill passed. It was one of the most important bills this session.”
The bill by Sen. Hannah Beth Jackson, a Santa Barbara Democrat, would allow more Californians to take time off with a new baby or ailing loved one by requiring that companies with at least five employees guarantee workers their jobs back after a family leave. It’s part of what Gov. Gavin Newsom has called his “parents’ agenda.”
The Legislature doesn’t normally allow lawmakers to vote on bills unless they are in the Capitol. But during the coronavirus pandemic both the Assembly and the Senate came up with procedures to accommodate the new risks posed by the austere chambers of the statehouse, where up to 80 lawmakers gather to cast votes. Senators were able to cast votes remotely, by live video conference, while the Assembly passed a rule allowing its members to vote by proxy if they are at high risk from COVID-19.
Health experts say that pregnant women “might be at an increased risk” and babies “appear to be at higher risk” of severe illness if they catch the coronavirus. And the Capitol has had two outbreaks of the deadly virus this summer, including one just last week, when state Sen. Brian Jones announced that he’d tested positive, prompting the Senate to send home Republicans who had been exposed to him and required them to vote remotely.
Wicks asked permission to vote by proxy — essentially empowering a legislative leader to vote on her behalf — but the Assembly speaker would not allow it. Speaker Anthony Rendon said the proxy voting rule was only allowed for coronavirus risks and could not be used for maternity leave.
“I had members calling me and texting me. ‘Are you going to proxy vote? Are you going to come up and vote? I need your vote on bills,’” Wicks said, mentioning contentious legislation to build more housing and phase out plastic packaging, in addition to family leave.
Since infants feed about every two hours, and Wicks is breastfeeding, she said she didn’t want to be separated from her newborn to make a trip to the Capitol. So she packed up 5-week-old Elly and traveled to Sacramento.
They spent much of the day in Wicks’ office. But when the most contentious bills came up late that night, mother and baby were on the Assembly floor. Wicks rose to give a harried but impassioned speech for the housing bill — begging her colleagues to pass it as she soothed a crying baby on her shoulder.
The moment went viral. Some cast it as a symbol of maternal strength, while others lambasted the Assembly speaker for rules that forced Wicks to choose between voting on critical legislation and putting her baby at risk of a potentially deadly virus. Hillary Clinton — whose 2016 presidential campaign Wicks worked on as the California campaign director — tweeted about it.
On Tuesday night, Speaker Rendon — himself the father of a baby — apologized, saying he had “failed to make sure our process took into account the unique needs of our members.”
Then leaders of the women’s caucus spoke out, issuing a statement saying they would work to “improve our internal policies for women in the Legislature.”
But what didn’t make a splash was the nail-biter vote on the family leave bill, which had cleaved the Democratic caucus, with progressives for it and moderates against. The measure had to clear the Assembly with 41 votes by midnight or die for the year.
When it hit the floor at 11:10 p.m., Wicks voted “yes,” but it was still 10 votes short of passing. It came up again at 11:20 p.m. and gained two more “yes” votes. Still not enough to pass. Then, with just five minutes before the deadline, it came up again. The clock ticked as green lights slowly appeared on an electronic board, indicating yes votes next to lawmakers’ names. At 11:55 p.m., it got 38 “yes” votes. At 11:56, it got 39. Then 40. And at 11:57, the 41st yes vote was cast by an unlikely politician: Assemblymember Joaquin Arambula.
The Fresno Democrat had tried, as leader of the caucus of moderate Democrats, to water down or block the family leave bill, saying it was too onerous on small businesses. Most moderate Democrats did not vote for family leave job protection, including several who are mothers.
Arambula stepped down as leader of the moderate caucus the next day. Asked if it was because moderate Democrats were rebelling over his support for family leave, Arambula declined to answer. Instead, he said, the legislative session had come to an end and “it was appropriate for us to look to the future.”
Jackson, the senator who carried the family leave bill, said Wicks was critical to its passage. She had asked Wicks to vote for the bill but assumed she’d be able to do so by proxy.
“She was one of those aye votes we knew would come through with us and we needed her vote,” Jackson said.
In the end, she said, the episode highlighted how much the Legislature needs to improve its own practices while also crafting laws for 40 million Californians.
“This kind of lack of sensitivity about what a new mother is going through has got to stop,” Jackson said. “It is my hope that we will see policy changes in the Legislature and will set an example for women in all workplaces in the future.”