When Board of Supervisors President David Chiu introduced his proposal last week for a citywide ballot initiative setting laws around flexible schedules for caregivers, he was not only cribbing from the United Kingdom and New Zealand, which already have similar statutes on the books. Chiu—who is widely expected to run for State Assembly in 2014—was also borrowing a page from a long line of state politicians who have tried to ride so-called apple pie initiatives to higher office.
It’s a trend that goes back to at least the early '70s with our once and current Governor Jerry Brown, explains Ethan Rarick, the director of the Robert Matsui Center of Politics at UC Berkeley, and a longtime observer of state politics. “Jerry Brown was Secretary of State in 1970, and he put together Proposition 9, the Political Reform Act, and used it to get elected Governor in 1974,” says Rarick. “There’s all kinds of [other] examples. Arnold Schwarzenegger ran Prop. 49—which gave more money to after school care—in 2002 to burnish his policy credentials. Chris Kelly got behind Proposition 35 [which strengthened laws against sex trafficking] last year to boost his name recognition.”
For his part, Chiu says that he hasn’t “made any decision about the Assembly race” and that his “name identification numbers are decent,” suggesting that he doesn't need the bump in his Q rating that such a popular ballot measure might bring. But it certainly looks from the outside that his San Francisco Family Friendly Workplace Ordinance—which is co-sponsored by Supervisors Eric Mar and Malia Cohen—is cut from the same cloth as the examples cited by Rarick. According to text of the bill submitted by Chiu, it would allow workers who are caring for children to request “flexible working arrangements” from their employers, including hours, schedule, work assignments, and other factors relating to employment. The employer would have the ability to either accept or deny that request, provided that the decision be made in writing and subject to appeal to the City’s Office of Labor Standards Enforcement. “I think that many of the city’s employers are already doing the right thing,” said Chiu. “But hopefully for those who haven’t thought about the issue, this will provide a city-wide model.”
Chiu says that part of the inspiration behind the ordinance came from stalled efforts in Washington D.C., including those by the late Senator Ted Kennedy, to enact similar provisions on a nationwide scale. He also looked at similar models already in place in Great Britain, where Chiu says that one million workers took advantage of the right to request flex time in the year after it was enacted. “The hope,” he says, “is that San Francisco can be the first in the country” to enact these kinds of protections.
But the measure has already drawn considerable fire, with San Francisco Chamber of Commerce vice president for public policy Jim Lazarus telling the Chronicle that Chiu's proposal was "beyond unbelievable." One concern is that the bill would require workers' schedules to be set two weeks in advance. Another is the relatively small number of workers who would be covered. As currently written, the measure would only apply to businesses with ten or more employees, and exempt employees of the federal, state, and local governments (other than the city). Statistics from the 2010 Census indicate that roughly 95,000 total adults living and working in San Francisco would fall into the category of caregiver, and of these, around 75,000 would be affected by the proposal, or 9% of the total population of 812,000. Chiu recognizes that San Francisco has an extremely small pool of families, saying that, “Every week I’m asked how we can do better as a city for them.”
A final concern is that the law, if passed, would be hard to modify in the future. To make even a “technical, non-substantive” change to the law would require a two-thirds vote of the Board of Supervisors. Similar requirements at the state level have been blamed for dramatically decreasing the effectiveness of California’s government. Chiu recognizes that problem, saying that many voter-approved ordinances in the past did not allow any chance for modification by the Board. Why two-thirds then? “That’s the number we received from the City Attorney’s office,” he says.
What happens from here? Chiu is meeting now with members of the business community and others who have concerns about the bill. The proposal will be heard by the Board, and can be modified up until late July. If approved by a simple majority of six votes, it will go onto the November ballot. Althougth the proposal is by no means guaranteed passage, the timing leads many political observers to question the underlying motivations. “I’m mostly a fan of the initiative process,” says Rarick. “But for people who aren’t, this doesn’t help. To me, its not inherently terrible for politicians to use the initiative process for their own purposes. But it’s worth noting that they do that."