California created the nation's first paid family leave program for workers more than a decade ago, allowing for workers to get paid time off to bond with a newborn or adopted child or care for sick family members (a child, spouse, parent, parent-in-law, sibling, grandparent or grandchild).
Now, thanks to a new law (AB 908) just signed by Governor Jerry Brown, family leave is more affordable, particularly for low-wage workers. That’s important given that studies show that low-wage workers are less likely to take advantage of paid family leave because they can’t afford it. AB 908 increases the percentage of weekly pay lower-wage workers get when they take family leave, from 55 to 70 percent. The new law increases the percentage of weekly pay for all other workers using the program from 55 to 60 percent.
Such reform continues the significant momentum for long-overdue affordable family leave in our country. This month, New York created a state program which will allow 12 weeks of job-protected paid family leave. San Francisco became the first city to give most workers six weeks of paid leave at their full salaries.
But there’s still significant work to be done. Consider, for example, that the United States is currently the only developed nation that does not provide a national paid leave program.
One step forward would be for California to add full job protection for people who work at small companies with 50 or fewer employees. Workers at large California companies (employing 50 or more) have job protection through the federal Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) and the California Family Rights Act (CFRA), but the 40 percent of Californians who work for small companies do not.
And FMLA or CFRA don't protect you if you've taken the leave to care for a sibling, grandparent, or grandchild. You may, in some instances, be protected by gender discrimination laws, but that is complicated and depends on the facts in each case. So there's a big gap and if you're at a smaller company, you use the leave program at your own peril.
And let’s be real: six weeks is not enough to meet a typical person's caregiving obligations or to bond with a new child. If you are a parent, did you feel sufficiently ready to spring back to work six weeks after your baby was born or became part of your family? I’m guessing no.
A bill authored by Senator Hannah-Beth Jackson (D.-Santa Barbara) would fix this problem for new parents. SB 1166 will provide up to 12 weeks of job-protected leave for new parents to bond with a child after birth, adoption, or foster placement. This bill is needed, but more also needs to be done about giving more time to people taking care of parents, siblings or a spouse.
Deciding to take family leave, time off from a job in a still uncertain economy, is not something anyone does lightly. And remember, the paid family leave program is funded entirely through worker contributions, not the state. It’s a benefit program we pay into through our paychecks. Workers who use the program take a pay cut, getting a percentage of their weekly pay, not full pay.
But recent research shows that fear of retaliation or losing one’s job is one of the top reasons workers give for not using the paid family leave. And we should all have time to bond with our children or take care of a loved one without fearing we might lose our jobs, after all we pay for it.
Melissa Goodman is director of LGBTQ, Gender & Reproductive Justice Project at the ACLU of Southern California.