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Paid Leave Bill Ignites Emotions


SACRAMENTO — Millions of Californians could soon receive the right to paid leave from their jobs to care for ailing relatives or to bond with new children under legislation that would fundamentally change the contract between employers and employees.

Strongly backed by organized labor and vehemently opposed by business, the measure by state Sen. Sheila Kuehl (D-Santa Monica) would make California the first state to grant most workers paid time off to deal with crucial but common family situations.

A significant expansion from current state and federal laws that require larger businesses to provide their workers with unpaid family leave during difficult times, the legislation would directly affect the lives of more than 12 million California workers and the bottom lines of thousands of businesses.

As a result, the measure, which has cleared the Senate and now awaits passage in the Assembly, is the focus of a simmering fight in the state capital. Business groups say the costs of the program, which remain unclear, would prove high and would lead to layoffs. But women's groups and other supporters say the legislation would actually save money by helping businesses retain good workers, citing a recent UC Berkeley study.

"The traditional caretakers--women--are now at work," said Lissa Bell of the National Partnership for Women & Families, citing the rise of households in which both parents hold jobs. "So people are having to choose between paying the bills or spending time with loved ones [during emergencies]. That's not a choice they should have to make."

Europe Has Programs

The United States is one of the last developed nations without some form of paid parental leave. About 127 countries, including most of Europe, have such programs, and many others have passed similar laws to compensate workers who need time off because of family emergencies.

But Congress has repeatedly failed to adopt either, and proponents are increasingly taking their fight to statehouses around the country. Similar bills were introduced in 27 other states--including New York and Massachusetts--over the last two years, according to the National Partnership, a nonprofit Washington group that has been pushing for the measures.

The California legislation, which seems to share the most momentum with the New York bill, would establish a mandatory insurance program in the state that would be funded in equal measure by workers and businesses.

It would be modeled on an existing state program that provides partial compensation to disabled workers. If a worker ever had to miss time because a spouse or parent fell ill, or because the family was bringing a new child into the home, the employee would receive as much as 55% of his salary for as long as 12 weeks from the state-run fund.

With the exception of government employees, nearly every worker would be eligible, but there would be a limit of about $728 a week on the compensation that employees could receive in the program's first year, 2004. Correspondingly, higher-wage earners would have to contribute to the program only up to a certain portion of their salaries, with the 2004 wage ceiling being about $65,000.

Although the measure does not state exactly how much it would cost to fund the program, a 2000 study by the state Employment Development Department estimated the average cost at $34 annually per worker, or $17 each from workers and their employers if equally split. The more recent Berkeley study pegged the split at about $25 for each side, however, and the California Chamber of Commerce, a leading opponent, estimates that each share could be far higher, more than $100 annually.

Proponents, primarily labor unions but also a number of religious, senior citizen and child care groups, say the current unpaid-leave laws do little to help families in times of need. They point to studies showing that many workers do not take advantage of the laws because, without some compensation, they cannot afford to leave their jobs to care for loved ones, even for a few weeks.

"This is the most important piece of pro-family legislation this year. It's a very important bill to working people," said Art Pulaski, treasurer of the California Labor Federation, AFL-CIO, the measure's sponsor. "We are talking about $17 here to allow people to spend some very important time with their families."

Business Opposition

Opponents, which include an array of trade groups, say the bill is yet another example of California politicians imposing new costs on business that could force them to cut jobs. The incremental fees are adding up, they say, making it harder for them to compete in a global economy.

"The feel-good crowd pushing the bill is unfortunately trying to mandate a fringe benefit," said Julianne Broyles of the California chamber. "Certainly, it would be great if everyone could also provide day care, but they can't."

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