California's paid family-leave a success

California's landmark Paid Family Leave (PFL) program has produced substantial "economic, social, and health" gains for workers and their families. It has had "an equalizing effect" regarding gender, racial and income disparity. And, it did not turn out to be the "job-killer," costly and easily abused program the business community claimed when it was fighting the now six-year-old program before it became law.

These are the conclusions of a study recently released by co-authors Eileen Applebaum, senior economist at the Center for Economic Policy and Research, and Ruth Milkman, professor of sociology at the University of California in Los Angeles and City University of New York.

California is the first of two states to offer paid family-leave, New Jersey is the other.

The California program allows private-sector workers to take up to six weeks a year off at 55 percent of wages to care for a newborn, a newly adopted child or a sick family member. The federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) law allows up to 12 weeks off, but it is unpaid.

In comparison with workers not utilizing PLF, those using the program were able to greatly increase the amount of wages replaced while on leave, took longer leaves, and were more satisfied with the length of their leaves.

Many workers were able to supplement their earnings and time off under the PFL program with other paid benefits, such as sick leave and vacation, if they chose to do so. 
Those without alternative benefits - more common among low-wage workers, women, people of color, and immigrants - could at least rely on the income from the PLF program while on leave. 
Nearly all respondents (93.5 percent) with higher paying jobs had access to employer-provided paid sick leave and/or vacation, compared to only 62.1 percent of those with low-paying jobs. 
The program enhanced workers' ability to care for their new children and sick family members.

For example, PFL use doubled the median duration of breastfeeding for new mothers while new fathers have been taking more and longer leaves to "bond" with their new child. 
The study revealed that the proportion of "bonding" claims filed by men has gone up "steadily and substantially" over the life of the program. 
The PLF helps lessen the negative impact of child rearing and other family responsibilities on women's earnings, but also can increase men's role in care giving and "thus contribute to gender equality," the researchers concluded. 

Interestingly, the "vast majority" of employers after nearly six years of the program reported "positive effects or no effect at all on their productivity, profitability, or performance," according to the study. 
The program has no direct costs to the employer: the benefit is funded entirely by an employee payroll-tax (currently a 1.2 percent tax that finances both SDI and PFL), one of the factors which most likely accounts for the favorable ratings by employers. 

Furthermore, the "vast majority" of employers reported they knew of "no cases in which their employees had abused the program." For workers in low-paying jobs, the program increased their likelihood of returning to work with the same employer, according to the study. 

While those aware of the program remains limited, the study shows that among "those Californians who need the program most - low-wage workers, immigrants, and Latinos (groups that overlap significantly) - are least likely to be aware of it."  The report calls for improving the program in the following areas:

  • Expand outreach.
  • Increase benefit provided by the program from the current 55 percent of weekly earnings to two-thirds (66.7 percent), to match that which is provided by New Jersey. (Currently California beneficiaries are receiving $488 a week on average).
  • Extend job protection to everyone who takes a PFL leave so that all beneficiaries, regardless of whether or not they have protection under other laws, will have a job to return to.
  • Extend the PFL program to cover all California public employees, not just private-sector employers.

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