Viewpoints: Family leave program has proved its value, but it could do more
The Sacramento Bee, January 25, 2011
By Netsy Firestein
In these difficult times for California's working families, we have good news.
New research shows that California's pioneering Paid Family Leave program is a success. The first of its kind in the nation, Paid Family Leave has provided more than a million Californians partial pay when they took leave from their jobs to bond with a new child or care for a seriously ill family member.
Before this common-sense law took effect in 2004, business lobbyists called it a "job killer" and claimed employers would be impossibly burdened by having to replace absent workers or pay overtime. Despite the hand-wringing, this did not happen.
In fact, the first comprehensive research on the PFL program – "Leaves That Pay: Employer and Worker Experiences With Paid Family Leave in California" – finds that employers are overwhelmingly supportive of paid family leave. Researchers from UCLA and the Center for Economic and Policy Research report that nine in 10 employers say the program has had either positive or neutral effects on their business. It has lowered turnover and boosted morale. Small employers are even more satisfied with the program than big businesses.
More important, the program has greatly benefited California workers and families.
A woman who took paid time off to care for her terminally ill mother recently said, "The huge relief all of this provided while dealing with the extremely stressful situation of caring for and saying goodbye to my mother cannot be fully explained in words. I am very grateful that I live in one of the few states that offer this benefit."
Paid Family Leave has allowed many seriously ill people to be home under the care of a family member. It has allowed men more time with their newborns, and it has provided income to families on leave – especially important to low-income workers who often have no other benefits to count on.
Paid Family Leave works as an insurance program, covered by employee contributions to the state disability fund and administered by the state's Employment Development Department, and it doesn't cost employers a dime. It covers every private sector employee and some public employees. It provides partial pay for up to six weeks of leave at 55 percent of salary, up to $987 a week – a huge improvement over the federal Family Medical Leave Act, which provides only for unpaid leave and excludes small business.
Still, in hundreds of interviews with employees around the state, the researchers found a problem: More than half of those surveyed who recently had a new baby or seriously ill family member did not even know California paid leave existed.
The workers left out are almost always those who need the program the most. While 61 percent of college graduates were aware of the law, for example, only 21 percent of those with less than a high school education were. Among those with household incomes over $80,000 a year, 66 percent knew about it, compared with just 36 percent earning less than $30,000. More than half, 54 percent, of those whose employers offer paid sick days and vacation knew they could take leave, but only 35 percent of workers without those benefits were aware of the opportunity.
Additionally, some who were aware of the law did not apply for leaves because they feared employer retaliation, reduced opportunities for advancement, or even being fired. Some simply could not afford to use the program and forgo roughly half their pay.
At a time when Gov. Jerry Brown is planning deep cuts to programs vital to California families, such as In-Home Supportive Services and child care, it is important to remember that the benefits of these programs, including PFL, extend not just to workers but to employers and entire communities.
The new governor and Legislature have an opportunity to improve California's program and make it an example for the rest of the nation. Some simple measures would go a long way, including increasing outreach about the law to all Californians, especially low-income and racial/ethnic minorities; expanding PFL eligibility to workers caring for seriously ill siblings, grandparents, grandchildren and in-laws (the current law only covers spouses, children and parents); increasing benefits from the current maximum of six weeks to 12 weeks; and extending job security to all workers taking Paid Family Leave – as the current law does not guarantee job protection.
California is way ahead of other states and now it can leverage a good policy to further help its families, workers and employers. It will cost next to nothing. How often does that happen?