California Forum

California’s paid family leave program is a national model. Shouldn’t state workers get it, too?

Jerry Brown economics: 'empathy' vs. market 'ravages'

As he signs a bill to expand California's paid family leave program on April 11, 2016, Gov. Jerry Brown describes making the economy work for everyone.
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As he signs a bill to expand California's paid family leave program on April 11, 2016, Gov. Jerry Brown describes making the economy work for everyone.

Jason Glasspiegel and his wife just welcomed their second baby. Luckily for Glasspiegel, he’s not like most California state workers: He can get paid family leave.

With the new arrival, Glasspiegel, who holds a staff job at a state board in Sacramento, is eligible for six weeks of paid leave at about 55 percent of his salary, up to $1,173 weekly. He’ll take a week of paid leave to care for the newborn, then five more weeks when his wife, also a state employee, goes back to her office.

By staggering their leave, the Glasspiegels will extend bonding time with their new baby, and delay child care expenses, which can cost $1,000 or more a month. Not a bad deal, and one that most private sector employees can take for granted.

Union leaders point to legitimate reasons for opting out of paid family leave, such as the need to bargain for raises. But this mindset perpetuates the traditional gendered division of labor and compensation for caregiving.

Not so much, unfortunately, in the public sector. In one of the lesser-known ironies of California’s vaunted paid family leave law, the program is out of reach for the majority of California’s own state employees.

California’s paid family leave program, the first in the nation, will celebrate its 15th anniversary in September. It’s still a national model, but as paid family leave has become a rallying cry for workers, it is starting to show its age.

Paid family leave provides partial “replacement salary” for parents to take time off to bond with a new baby or newly adopted or fostered child. Eligible workers can also receive partial pay while taking time off to care for a seriously ill child, parent, parent-in-law, grandparent, grandchild, sibling, spouse or registered domestic partner.

Think of it as a kind of caregiving insurance. Like State Disability Insurance, which covers women unable to work because of pregnancy or childbirth, or employees disabled by illnesses and injuries that aren’t work-related, paid family leave is funded through an employee payroll deduction that amounts to about 1 percent of salary.

For about half of what a $50,000-a-year employee might spend on car insurance, the program assures a modicum of income for times when family must take precedence over work in this 21st century world of extended, blended, two-paycheck, single-parent and same-sex families.

State legislators have worked, bit by bit, to make paid family leave ever more accessible to workers in the private sector. But scant attention has been paid to the quirks of workplace compensation in the public sector that have made the program inaccessible for an estimated 58 percent of California’s nearly quarter of a million state employees.

Glasspiegel, for instance, is eligible only because he’s a member of SEIU Local 1000, the only union to “opt in” to State Disability Insurance (SDI) during collective bargaining, when unions negotiate with the state for salary and benefits.

Other workers belong to one of the 12 bargaining units that, unlike SEIU Local 1000, haven’t opted in to SDI. Or they work as managers or supervisors or in “excluded” positions not given the option to bargain for SDI.

Employees not in SDI are automatically enrolled at no cost in California’s Non-Industrial Disability Insurance (NDI) program, or can select Enhanced NDI, which offers more flexible benefits.

But neither of these programs supports paid time off for state workers to bond with a new child or care for an ailing or dying relative without drawing down leave traditionally reserved for vacation or sick leave.

Union leaders I interviewed point out there are legitimate reasons that a bargaining unit might choose not to opt in to SDI and secure paid family leave – such as the cost to employees or the need to bargain for raises which put dollars directly into employee bank accounts.

But this mindset perpetuates the traditional gendered division of labor and compensation for caregiving. And that makes less and less sense to a modern workforce.

“Responsibility for caregiving shouldn’t be put on women,” says Margarita Maldonado, vice president for bargaining at SEIU Local 1000. “It should be basic to our family values – supporting our parents, our children.”

She’s right. The state of Washington is showing that collective bargaining needn’t be a barrier to providing paid family leave. Governor Jay Inslee just signed a much-heralded bill that provides paid family leave for employees in both the private and public sectors.

It’s time for the state of California to step up as a model employer and guarantee paid family leave for all state employees.

Kate Karpilow is the former executive director of the California Center for Research on Women & Families. She can be contacted at katekarpilow@gmail.com. Follow her on Twitter @katekarpilow.

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