California paid family leave program growing – thanks to men

07/07/2014 12:00 AM

07/18/2014 8:42 AM

A decade ago, this was a familiar scenario for many couples: A baby is born; the mother takes several weeks off to bond and recover; the father takes a couple of sick days and heads back to work.

Today, this is an increasingly likely scenario: Family has baby; dad and mom both take several weeks off to nurture the child.

It’s been 10 years since California began offering paid family leave to new parents in July 2004. The number of Californians using the program has grown sharply since its first year – and the large majority of that growth is due to new dads taking time off to be with their children.

During the first full year of the paid family leave program, 135,000 Californians used it to spend time with their children and about 25,000 of them were men. Last year, about 190,000 Californians used the program after a birth, and roughly 60,000 of them were men, according to state Employment Development Department figures cited in a new Senate Office of Research report.

“Younger men are much more interested in work and family balance and all the rest of it. They want to be involved with their families,” said Ruth Milkman, a professor of sociology at CUNY Graduate Center who co-authored a book on California’s family leave program.

Under a longstanding California program, women can take up to 12 weeks of disability payments following a birth. After 2004, women and men could also take up to six weeks of paid family leave. The state pays for the benefits using worker State Disability Insurance (SDI) contributions. Workers can also pay into a voluntary plan; employers don’t pay

California is one of only a handful of states offering paid family leave for men and women. Most states instead offer unpaid leave.

Using paid family leave, fathers and mothers can receive up to 55 percent of their weekly earnings for six weeks during the year following the birth of a child. (Workers also may use the program to care for a sick relative, but almost 90 percent of participants each year are caring for a newborn.)

Fathers sometimes take leave at the same time as the moms, Milkman said, but increasingly they take leave after mothers go back to work to extend the amount of time a newborn is home with a parent.

The rise in fathers taking leave “has a huge impact,” said Ann O’Leary, vice president of Next Generation, a Northern California nonprofit that works with children and families. “Research has found that when men bond with their babies at an early age they end up having a close personal relationship with their children.”

In previous generations, men did not take time off much after births in part because they felt a responsibility to provide for their families, Milkman said. With money coming in from paid family leave, those concerns fade.

“The paid family leave kept us afloat,” said Brandon Baker, an assistant manager at a Lowe’s Home Improvement Store in Roseville.

Baker took two weeks off in February following the birth of his daughter, Aubreigh, to bond and to help his wife, Ashleigh. “I loved it. I know I’m entitled to four more weeks. I’m trying to talk with human resources to see how that would work.”

Bay Area resident Stefan Antonowicz used paid family leave twice during the last five years. In 2009, he took off several weeks to stay with his newborn boy while his wife worked. “I don’t think I could have swung it without having some pay,” he said.

In 2011, Antonowicz, who works in the technology industry, stayed home with his wife and another newborn boy for six weeks immediately after the birth. The time allowed him not only to bond but also to help his wife while she recovered from a cesarean section. “It was good to be with her,” he said.

The increase in men taking family leave is affecting how employers think about workers, said Eileen Appelbaum, who co-wrote the paid family leave book with Milkman. Some employers still believe hiring a woman is a liability because she may take time off work to care for a new child, Appelbaum said. More men taking time off undermines that prejudice and levels the field.

“Any worker is likely to take a leave,” she said.

Even with more men taking part, less than 2 percent of California workers use paid family leave each year, Appelbaum said. In a poll conducted for Appelbaum and Milkman, about 90 percent of employers said the program had no impact or a positive impact on their businesses.

“Most employers have adjusted to the fact that their employees – male and female – live in a household where everyone is employed,” Appelbaum said. “If something comes up most employers already have figured out how to adjust.”

Surveys show most Californians still don’t know about the paid family leave program, Appelbaum and others said. They believe that as word spreads, men likely will continue to drive the growth. Men comprised about 30 percent of paid family leave participants who used the program last year to care for a newborn, double the percentage from a decade ago – but far from 50 percent.

“It has a lot of room to increase,” O’Leary said. “There just needs to be a lot more awareness that men are doing this and that it is OK.”

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