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Senate Advances Paid Family Leave Bill

Benefits: Compensation would come from state disability fund. Business groups oppose measure.


SACRAMENTO -- Legislation that would make California the first state to promise disability pay for workers who take time off to care for an ill family member or to welcome a newborn into the world was passed Monday by the Senate.

Many states, including California, authorize unpaid leave for employees to tend to family crises, but none provides compensation for doing so, backers of the bill said.

Under the plan, the state disability insurance program would provide partial replacement compensation for up to 12 weeks of income forfeited when someone leaves work to participate in a "temporary family disability" case.

Starting in 2004, weekly payments would range from $50 to $490 and be capped at 55% of earnings during the covered period. The bill would split the higher costs of the new benefits between employees and their employers, with the total cost of premiums estimated at $662 million for the first two years.

Proponents of the bill said about 13 million Californians would be eligible to participate, although they presented no estimates of how many would claim the benefit in a given year.

Those who do would receive benefits for up to 12 weeks to care for a "seriously ill child, spouse, parent or domestic partner or to bond with a newborn infant."

The state Department of Employment Development has estimated that in its first two years of operation, the paid family leave benefits would total $217 million. The department also said that in the same period, employers would pay $220 million and workers would contribute $442 million.

On a near party-line vote, Democrats prevailed over Republicans, 21 to 15, to send the bill to the Assembly. One Democrat, Sen. Jim Costa of Fresno, joined with GOP members in opposing the plan.

Approval of the bill (SB 1661), by Sen. Sheila Kuehl (D-Santa Monica), represented a win for organized labor, which had fought for a paid family leave law for years but was turned aside by former Republican Govs. Pete Wilson and George Deukmejian.

Kuehl said Gov. Gray Davis, who has sought to be friendly with both labor and corporate leaders as he campaigns for a second term, has not taken a position on her bill.

Opponents of the paid family leave plan include such major employer organizations as the California Chamber of Commerce and the Manufacturers and Technology Assn., and operators of restaurants, hospitals and some grocery markets.

In addition to the California Labor Assn., AFL-CIO, sponsor of the bill, supporters include labor unions, physicians, senior citizens, teachers and child-care groups.

Several other states are looking at enacting a paid family leave law, but none has yet done so, said labor union representatives and a spokeswoman for Kuehl.

During floor debate, Kuehl noted that the current unpaid leave policy, which was praised only a few years ago as a breakthrough for family values, had failed to attract many participants because they cannot afford to give up their earnings while they tend to family situations. She said compensation from the state disability fund would at least partly offset their loss of income.

Currently, state disability insurance is financed by employee contributions. Under the bill, employers for the first time would contribute half of the additional premium costs, about $1.60 a month each for the average worker and typical employer, Kuehl said.

But Sen. Ray Haynes (R-Riverside), who led the GOP opposition, complained that the Legislature was told when it adopted the unpaid family leave law that its backers would never return with a paid leave bill. He said Democrats now had offered just such a bill, which he called "a tax on jobs."

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