Capitol Alert

Data Tracker: Growth continues in paid family leave program

A year into its second decade, more California workers than ever are filing claims with the state’s paid family leave program that allows time off to bond with a new child or care for a sick relative, while receiving partial wage replacement.

State data, though, suggest the program’s benefits remain concentrated among workers with higher incomes. Among the bills awaiting California lawmakers when they return next month is legislation meant to make the program more attractive to employees in lower wage brackets.

Created by a 2002 law, the paid family leave program began July 1, 2004. Eligible employees get up to six weeks leave during a 12-month period, and receive 55 percent in wage replacement from the state’s disability insurance fund, which employees pay into.

Through 2014, there were almost 2 million claims and $4.8 billion in benefits paid out, according to state Employment Development Department statistics. Through October of this year, there had been more than 198,000 claims.

Participation has steadily increased, as has the amount paid out in benefits and average weekly payments to participants. In 2014, the average weekly benefit was $535.90, up from $422 in 2005.

Almost 90 percent of the claims come from workers bonding with a new child. Women continue to generate the vast majority of the claims, with male participants steadily increasing since the program’s beginnings, from 17.3 percent in 2004 to 30.2 percent in 2013.

Yet many eligible lower-income workers seem to be passing on the program. Data show that workers who earn $10,000 or less a year, or $10,000 to $20,000 a year, represented about 12 percent of paid family leave claims in 2014 even though they make up almost half of workers eligible for the program.

A main problem, experts say, is that few workers with those wages can afford a 45 percent cut in pay, on top of the added costs of having a child or caring for a relative. Assembly Bill 908 would raise the wage replacement rate to 80 percent for workers earning about $19,000 or less, and to 60 percent for wages higher than that. The amount of leave time for all recipients would increase from six weeks to eight weeks, among other changes.

The bill passed both houses this year and awaits final consideration in the Assembly. A spokesman for the measure’s author, Assemblyman Jimmy Gomez, D-Los Angeles, said the lawmaker hopes to take up the bill soon in 2016.

The Sacramento Bee’s Data Tracker is a weekly feature that offers a deeper look at the numbers behind today’s news. Jim Miller: 916-326-5521, @jimmiller2