SACRAMENTO — Gov. Gray Davis has decided to sign legislation allowing most California workers to take paid leave after the birth or adoption of a child or to care for sick family members, administration officials said Sunday.
Davis will sign the measure today at UCLA Medical Center in Los Angeles, officials said, capping one of the most closely watched issues of the legislative session and making California the first state to enact a comprehensive paid family leave program. The bill is seen by supporters as a model for the nation.
Under the measure, which was written by Sen. Sheila Kuehl (D-Santa Monica), most workers will be paid about 55% of their salary for six weeks of leave for a new child or sick relative. The program will expand the state fund providing insurance for disabled workers but will be funded entirely by employee payroll deductions, averaging about $26 a year. About 13 million of California's 16 million workers would be eligible.
Labor unions and women's groups across the country hailed the Democratic governor's decision to make California the first state to enact a comprehensive paid family leave program.
"This is a tremendous victory," said Karen Nussbaum, assistant to AFL-CIO President John Sweeney in Washington, D.C., and an activist involved in the fight for paid family leave for more than 20 years. "It was a huge effort on the part of the labor movement."
Business groups denounced the governor's decision.
The California Chamber of Commerce led a coalition of groups that tried unsuccessfully to kill the Kuehl bill in the California Legislature. The groups have described it as one of the most economically damaging pieces of legislation on the governor's desk.
"It's a huge disappointment to us that the governor would even consider signing it," Julianne Broyles, a lobbyist for the California Chamber of Commerce in Sacramento, said Sunday. "California businesses will be at a competitive disadvantage because of this, and [Davis] doesn't seem to care."
In reaching his decision, Davis "weighed all the options of taking such a great step, but when it came right down to it, he believes in putting family first," said press secretary Steven Maviglio.
During the final legislative wrangling over SB 1661 in August, Kuehl said, she agreed to the governor's suggestions to scale back the bill's impact on businesses. She shortened the leaves to six weeks from 12 and shifted the expense entirely to workers rather than have employers and employees split the costs.
Those changes haven't satisfied the California Chamber of Commerce and other opponents, who contend that any form of paid leave will be a costly blow to businesses.
"Paid family leave is one of the worst bills for employers in the 2001-02 legislative session," said Broyles. "This bill fails miserably to address the real cost concerns of employers--the costs of replacement workers and additional overtime to cover for absent workers, training costs and loss of productivity."
Supporters, however, said business groups have voiced similar concerns about virtually every labor benefit on the books today, ranging from the minimum wage to workers' compensation payments for job-related injuries. They said paid leave will result in happier, more focused workers who might otherwise be forced to quit their jobs because of family emergencies.
"We as a nation love to talk about ourselves as a family-friendly nation, but when it comes to having the policies in place to live up to that we often fall short," said Judith Lichtman, president of the National Partnership for Women and Children, a Washington-based advocacy group involved in the nationwide battle over paid family leave. "This is a really powerful statement on behalf of California workers who need to take time off to care for loved ones but can't afford to take leave when their families need them the most."
In a legislative year that has seen the California Labor Federation shepherd more than 20 bills to the governor's desk, paid family leave was a top priority for the state's largest labor group.
"Certainly, in terms of family legislation, I think it's far and away the most significant bill [Davis] has signed," said Tom Rankin, president of the California Labor Federation. "It's a program whose time has come. Actually, it came a while back."
Under the Kuehl bill, only workers who pay into the state disability insurance system would be eligible for the paid family leaves. State government employees are exempted from that system because California covers them under a self-insured program. Payroll deductions for eligible workers--ranging up to $70 a year for people earning more than $72,000 a year--would begin in January 2004. Workers would be allowed to start taking paid leaves as of July 1, 2004. The maximum payment will be $728 a week, and the payments will not be taxed.