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California family leave program gets high marks in study

Researchers say workers' lives have improved and the downside for employers has been minimal under the law, implemented in 2004 despite the business community's opposition.

January 11, 2011|By Alana Semuels, Los Angeles Times

Nearly a decade after California legislators passed the nation's first paid family leave law, researchers say the downside for businesses has been minimal while thousands of families have seen their working lives improve.

Men are spending more time with their newborns. Women are breastfeeding more. And workers who take family leave enjoy their jobs more. Those are some of the conclusions of a new study by Eileen Applebaum, senior economist at the Center for Economic Policy and Research in Washington, and Ruth Milkman, professor of sociology at UCLA and City University of New York.

"All the fears that this program would be disruptive to business were not well founded," Milkman said.

Passed in 2002 and implemented in 2004, the Paid Family Leave Act provides eligible employees with replacement pay — up to 55% of their usual earnings — for up to six weeks. It supplements the federal Family and Medical Leave Act, which provides unpaid leave for people who need to take time off to care for sick family members or bond with a new child.

In the state's last fiscal year 167,523 people took time off for "bonding" with a new child, while 23,220 took time off to care for ill family members, according to the Employment Development Department. The workers received, on average, $488 a week.

The program is funded by a 1.2% payroll tax that also helps pay for a state disability insurance program.

About 12.3 million Californians are eligible for the program, according to the EDD, and 1.2 million claims have been filed since the program began in 2004.

Still, many California workers are not covered by the law. Independent contractors and freelancers have to opt in to the program. Some workers, hampered by the recession, said the wage replacement was too meager to allow them to take time off. And still others don't know about paid family leave.

When the bill was passed, the California Chamber of Commerce expressed concerns that the new law would be detrimental to employers. Its opinion has not changed much since then.

"The combination of paid family leave with the myriad of other protected employee leave programs that only California requires creates a significant administrative burden on employers, increases costs and minimizes the ability of companies to expand hiring and create new jobs," said Jennifer Barrera, a policy advocate for the California Chamber of Commerce.

Some workers, however, are grateful for the program. Heidi Wintermantel Stanley, a social worker who lives in Contra Costa County, said she couldn't have adopted her daughter four years ago without getting some paid time off.

"Without the program, we wouldn't have had money to pay our mortgage," said Stanley, 42. "I don't know what we would have done."

Stanley took paid leave a second time when her son, who is autistic, was recently hospitalized. She said it would have been tough to get by on just her husband's salary during that time. He's a butcher.

Employers also have benefited from the leave, Applebaum and Milkman said, through increased employee morale, productivity and job performance.

Mothers were more likely to breastfeed if they took leave — 92.5% of those on paid family leave breast-fed their newborns, compared with 83.3% of those who did not take leave.

The law has also encouraged fathers to take leave to care for newborns, according to the study. In 2004, only 17% of claims for "bonding" — typically taken to care for a new child — were filed by men. That number rose steady to 26% in 2009-10.

alana.semuels@latimes.com

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