California has one of the nation’s few paid family-leave programs, but far too few Californians can take advantage of it.
One reason is pay. People who need time off to care for a new child or sick relative only get reimbursed for 55 percent of their lost salary for a maximum of six weeks, which is simply a deal breaker for minimum-wage workers. Living on the minimum wage is hard enough, let alone 55 percent of it.
So good for Assemblyman Jimmy Gomez, D-Los Angeles, who last week finally persuaded the Legislature to improve the payout, particularly for lower-wage workers. Under Gomez’s bill, private-sector workers earning up to about $108,000 will get at least a 60 percent reimbursement in weekly salary, and those earning the minimum wage or slightly more would get coverage for 70 percent of their paycheck.
Yes, as improvements go, this one is modest. Even at the top end, the weekly reimbursement would only be about $1,200. A minimum-wage worker on leave to care for a new baby or sick family member would get about $256 a week in wage replacement under the new formula, or about $55 more than she or he does now.
But that small change could make a short leave pencil out so that, say, a new mother could nurse an infant a little longer, or an adoptive dad could bond with his new baby, or so a working wife wouldn’t have to leave her sick spouse at home with a stranger. Or just so that more working people could access the benefits they’ve shelled out for.
Just to be clear, reimbursement for family leave doesn’t come out of taxpayers’ pockets. The program, which is 12 years old, is funded entirely by premiums paid through the state disability insurance kitty.
The money comes out of employees’ paychecks, a tiny bit at a time, over the course of their working lives, through payroll tax deductions. Employers pay nothing. Use it or not, workers pay for it themselves.
A study last summer by the state Employment Development Department found that only a fraction of the state’s 13.1 million eligible workers had taken advantage of the program they were paying for – or even realized it existed.
That needs to change, as does the other big reason workers don’t exercise this right: the fear that they’ll be fired if they try to take that much time off. Another bill, being pushed by Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson, D-Santa Barbara, would extend job protection to the small business employees who still don’t have it. Lawmakers should make that improvement as well.