California's Paid Family Leave a Boon to Workers—For Those Who Use It

When Berkeley researcher Ann O’Leary had a sick child in the hospital, she couldn’t help but notice that the parents of the baby next door rarely visited.

She quizzed a doctor about the absentee parents and received a ho-hum answer: “Oh, we see that all the time—they come by at midnight or 4 a.m. They’re afraid of getting fired if they take off work.”

California is at the forefront of a national push by worker advocates to take some of the fear out of a family member's getting sick.

New research shows that the state’s path-breaking paid family leave policy, which came into effect seven years ago, has produced gains for workers—while barely affecting employers. The findings rebut earlier claims from the corporate lobby that employees would abuse leave time, swamping businesses with extra costs.

“It’s been a non-event for employers,” said Eileen Appelbaum, an economist at the Center for Economic and Policy Research who co-authored a study, “Leaves that Pay,” released Thursday.

California grants six weeks of paid family leave to virtually all private sector workers, regardless of how small the employer. But only those public workers whose union bargained for it, or whose boss voluntarily provides it, are covered.

The leave is funded through a state payroll tax, and promises to pay 55 percent of a worker’s wage during a leave to bond with a new child or care for a seriously ill family member. Workers bear the full burden of the tax, a 1.2 percent ticket that also funds short-term disability leave for workers’ own illnesses.

Nationally, just half the workforce is covered by the Family and Medical Leave Act, which provides for 12 weeks of unpaid leave time and protects workers from firing for using it.

The California law reverses the equation, guaranteeing paid leave but not job protection.




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Appelbaum and Ruth Milkman, a sociologist at the City University of New York, presented findings from their survey of 500 workers who could have accessed the paid leave. They found that the lowest-paid workers benefited the most from having paid leave available—mostly because they were least likely to have decent benefits.

For new parents, having paid leave produced profound effects. New mothers took longer leaves and doubled the number of weeks spent breastfeeding to 10. Each year since the program’s inception, more men have taken more time off to bond with a new child, shifting the perception that family leave is for women only.

Employers encountered few problems with the leave policy, with almost 90 percent reporting positive or no effects on their operations. Countering expectations, small businesses had the fewest difficulties, while large employers had the most—in part because workers with specialized skills in a hospital or manufacturing setting are hard to replace. But the costs of hiring temps or adding to co-workers’ tasks were offset by reduced staff turnover, which lowered expenses for hiring and training.

Nine states are considering adopting paid family leave, although only New Jersey has joined California in offering it. The Obama administration included $50 million to fund pilot projects in its latest budget.

Perhaps the most vexing problem for advocates seeking to expand the California model is the low usage of the program.

“Everybody supports it, but the workers who most need it are least aware of it,” Milkman said.

Only half of those eligible for a paid leave were aware of the program. Low-wage workers, immigrants, and Latinos were the least likely to know about their right.

But even those who did know didn’t always pursue it. One-fifth of workers in the survey reported that they declined to take a leave for fear of harming their career, upsetting their employer, or losing their job.

Almost a third of decliners reported that they couldn’t afford to live on half their wages during a leave. The researchers called on lawmakers to add job protection to the law and to boost the benefit level to two-thirds of normal wages.

Mischa Gaus was the editor of Labor Notes from 2008 to

Comments (not verified) | 01/16/11

I recently last year was able to afford removal of a tumor I'd suffered with for years in the wall of my uterus and with out Fmla I'd lost everything I'd worked for I'm very grateful for my Unions support for this and a very grateful as a result of it I'm back at work 100%!