California can do better on paid family leave

President Barack Obama signs a presidential memorandum in January advancing a paid family leave for federal workers. Inspired by California, he has called for similar programs throughout the United States.
President Barack Obama signs a presidential memorandum in January advancing a paid family leave for federal workers. Inspired by California, he has called for similar programs throughout the United States. The Associated Press

When President Barack Obama called last month for more paid family leave in this country, his inspiration, as it does so often, came from the West.

Unlike most of the rest of the United States, workers in California get paid leave to care for sick relatives or bond with newborns. Passed in 2002 and underwritten by state disability insurance, the program offers leaves as long as six weeks at partial salary.

It is the largest (and for years was the only) benefit of its kind in the U.S., and it didn’t come easy. Even now, only two other states, New Jersey and Rhode Island, have anything like it. The California Chamber of Commerce fought it so hard that case studies were done on its passage; this even though employers pay nothing.

Today, the law is viewed as a win-win: Some 2 million families have been helped, and nine out of 10 businesses see it as a plus or a non-issue. But the program is a far cry from what it could and should be.

If paid family leave in this state is going to be held up as a national model, it’s time we got the kinks out of it.

For starters, more Californians need to know it’s out there. A Field Poll in October found that only about one registered voter in three realizes that California even has paid family leave.

Though Gov. Gray Davis, who signed it into law, initially funded publicity for it, budgets tightened under subsequent administrations. Now the economy is back and the Employment Development Department has received several million dollars for long-term outreach.

A marketing study is underway; EDD should dispatch it quickly and get cracking. A law that’s been around this long shouldn’t be news to two-thirds of the state.

Even more glaring is the need to build more job protection into the program. Though all private-sector workers pre-pay for family leave through SDI paycheck deductions, gaps in the law still leave millions vulnerable to being fired for taking it.

Workers at firms with fewer than 50 employees and those who have less than a year with their current employers aren’t covered by companion state and federal laws that ban employer retaliation for those who take paid leave.

Los Angeles County Supervisor Sheila Kuehl, who carried the paid leave bill when she was in the state Senate, says the chamber initially insisted that holding an employee’s job, even for a few weeks, would unfairly burden small employers.

But a 10-year follow-up study found that the program had no negative impact on productivity, profitability, morale or turnover, and most businesses easily covered the worker’s absence. Satisfaction was highest, in fact, among small businesses.

“They had all these specious arguments – it would cost money, it would be a job-killer,” Kuehl recalled in a recent interview with a Sacramento Bee editorial board member. “But all that doom and gloom just didn’t come to pass.”

Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson, D-Santa Barbara, plans to propose legislation this session to address this unfair loophole. The chamber probably will oppose it. But lawmakers should consider raising reimbursement and extending the program to 12 weeks, to mirror federal job protections.

Few people can make do on a fraction of minimum wage, and businesses might appreciate an elegant solution to the proliferation of tiny niche leaves that also have proliferated in California, from jury duty time to Civil Air Patrol Duty. Some paperwork could be eliminated if they were wrapped into a longer, more general, right to paid leave.

Of course, the most elegant solution would be a national program, which won’t happen under this Republican Congress. And that’s just shortsighted. When just having a child or caring for a sick parent is made harder for families, societies pay, one way or another.

California’s program has lowered employee turnover, increased breastfeeding duration, thrown a new lifeline to thousands of Alzheimer’s caregivers and doubled the proportion of young fathers who have taken paternity leave, just to name a few upsides.

And six weeks is nothing compared to what families get in every other developed country. New mothers in Djibouti and the Republic of Congo get more than twice that. Canadians and Brazilians get several times that. We won’t even mention Sweden and Denmark.

By those measures, California’s approach is merely one step in the right direction, in a nation that lags the rest of the civilized world by miles.