Paid Family Leave Could Become Reality in California

Momentum is building for California to become the first state to mandate paid family medical leave. Also, the world summit on development is ignoring the birth control issues because of U.S. opposition to family planning, say women's advocates.

State Sen. Shelia Kuehl

SAN FRANCISCO (WOMENSENEWS)-In a battle that has pitted labor interests against businesses, California legislators are considering a bill that would provide paid leave to workers who need time off to care for a newborn or sick relatives.

The Paid Family Leave Act would provide up to six weeks of paid leave to more than 13 million California workers. The program, administered through the state's disability insurance plan, would pay out 55 percent of workers' wages over the six weeks, with a cap of $490 per week, starting in 2004. Employees could use the time for parental leave or to care for ill family members or domestic partners.

The bill has passed the Assembly and the Senate is expected to give its final approval today. Democratic Gov. Gray Davis, in a bid for reelection, has not taken a position on the bill.

Paid Leave a Crucial Issue for Women

Paid family leave is especially important to women, who are often the primary caretakers for ill parents and children. National studies suggest that inflexibility in work schedules is one of the biggest barriers women face when looking for paid employment. Two-thirds of job trainers preparing women to leave welfare say that conflicts between work and family often prevent job placement, according to a report by the National Partnership for Women and Families.

Today, the federal Family and Medical Leave Act and California Family Rights Act provide up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave, but studies show that many workers do not take advantage of the time off because they cannot support themselves without a paycheck. As many as 78 percent of workers nationwide who need family leave cannot afford to take it unpaid, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. In addition, 55 percent of workers do not have vacation or sick days to fall back on in case of a family emergency.

California is ahead of other states in making paid family leave a reality because it is one of only five states that offers temporary disability leave, and thus has an infrastructure in place that could be expanded to administer the program. Twenty-seven other states have considered legislation for paid family leave this year.

“We're at a great advantage over other states,” says Pam Haynes, legislative advocate for the California Labor Federation AFL-CIO, which helped draft the bill. “We don't have to build something completely from scratch, which cuts down on the cost of starting the program.”

Polls Show Support for Plan, but Businesses Worry About Costs

The plan calls for the state to deduct approximately $27 from the average Californian's paycheck (.08 percent of wages). The bill was recently amended, however, to strike a provision requiring employers to pay into the program over concerns that the extra cost would hurt small businesses.

Other recent amendments also have whittled down the program: reducing paid leave from 12 weeks to six; requiring workers to take two weeks of unused vacation before receiving paid leave and mandating verification that no other family members are available to help out with family needs.

Still, Haynes says polls show that workers want paid family leave so much that they would be willing to pay as much as $5 per week out of their paychecks for the program.

But opponents of the bill say that costs to administer the program are still too high, especially for small businesses, which employ 6 out of 10 workers in California, according to the National Federation of Independent Businesses. About 1.2 million women own businesses in California and the majority employ fewer than 50 workers. So far, about 13,000 businesses have signed on in opposition to the bill.

Julianne Broyles, director of insurance and employee relations for the California Chamber of Commerce, says that bill is “outrageous” because it does not carve out an exception for companies with a small number of employees. She describes the bill as a “job killer.”

Broyles argues that very small businesses, such as an auto transmission shop with five workers, would suffer from lost productivity if even one worker went on paid family leave, possibly closing down the whole shop and putting more workers on the unemployment rolls. California has one of the highest unemployment rates in the country.

“All workers would be penalized if even one worker took paid leave,” Broyles says.

Broyles argues that less costly ways exist to make paid family leave a reality, such as using tax credits for workers or starting a voluntary “opt-in” program.

Like State Disability, Everyone Pays In

Jennifer Richard, legislative assistant for Democratic state Sen. Shelia Kuehl of Los Angeles, the bill's chief sponsor, counters that an opt-in plan would cost more.

“The reason why the cost for this is so amazingly low is because, like state disability insurance currently, everyone pays in, whether you need family leave or not,” Richard says. “It's there for everyone when and if they need it.”

A report by the National Federation of Independent Businesses claims that paid family leave could create millions of dollars in hidden costs in the form of lawsuits, unrealized sales, overtime for workers covering for those on leave and liability insurance. Women would be disproportionately hurt because more women own small businesses and work for small companies than men, the report says.

Richard rejects these arguments, saying that under current law, small businesses have no legal responsibility to hold a job open for a worker who goes on unpaid family leave or on disability. Small businesses would have the same protections under the paid family leave plan, she says, with any on-leave employee's salary and benefits paid through the state-administered employee-contribution pool.

Pro-paid leave forces have their own report-this one arguing that family leave would actually save the state money. The Labor Project for Working Families using U.S. Labor Department statistics found that California companies could save $89 million under a paid family-leave program due to increased employee retention and decreased worker turnover. And the state could save $25 million each year because of decreased reliance on assistance programs, such as food stamps, which families often turn to during unpaid leave, according to that report. One in 10 workers who take unpaid family leave rely on public assistance, according to bipartisan Commission on Family and Medical Leave.

“Those who say [the bill] would be a financial burden to California businesses are using baseless and irresponsible scare tactics,” says Netsy Firestein, executive director of the Labor Project for Working Families.

Outcome of Bill Likely to Rest with Davis

Though many California businesses are lobbying hard to stop Kuehl's bill from becoming law, the bill is now on the way to reach Davis's desk.

Davis's single biggest supporters in California are labor unions, which account for more than 13 percent of his total campaign contributions, a Los Angeles Times report found. But he is not popular among many business groups, and may be under pressure to appear pro-business during this election year. Davis's Republican foe, millionaire Bill Simon, has support among business associations. However, Simon's campaign has been severely crippled since his family's business was slapped with a $78 million civil penalty in July for fraudulent dealings.

Concerns about spending for new programs also could kill the bill. The state Assembly still has not passed a budget for fiscal year 2003 because of bitter fights over how to make up a $24.7 million budget shortfall-slashing health care programs and other social services to make ends meet.

“Is this any time to consider a new spending program?” Broyles asks rhetorically.

Supporters of paid family leave say the answer is yes.

“It is a very good time to make paid family leave available to workers,” says Haynes of the California Labor Federation. “A disproportionate number of families need support during difficult economic times to take care of sick family members.”

Rebecca Vesely is a frequent contributor to Women's Enews.

For more information:

National Partnership for Women and Families
“Campaign for Family Leave Benefits: An Overview”:

California Chamber of Commerce:

The California Coalition for Family Leave
Labor Project For Working Families:

For more information:

Johannesburg Summit 2002:

Reproductive Health Ignored at World Summit, Women Say

By Nicole Itano
WEnews correspondent

JOHANNESBURG (WOMENSENEWS)-Population and women's groups say reproductive health needs that are central to controlling population are being ignored at the World Summit on Sustainable Development taking place here this week.

“There's an unwillingness to face squarely issues of population, reproductive health and gender equality,” said Kunio Waki, deputy executive director of the United Nations Population Fund. “But women's status and the environment are intricately connected.”

The world's population has grown from 1.6 billion 100 years ago to more than 6 billion today, with devastating consequences for the environment. But neither population nor reproductive health are mentioned anywhere in drafts of the 71-page implementation document that nations will sign at the end of the summit next week.

“There are more than 300 million women in the world who want access to family planning and don't have it,” said Timothy Wirth, president of the United Nations Foundation, a philanthropic organization that is pushing for greater discussion of population at the summit. “Women need to have the right to determine the size of their family and how to space their children.”

Wirth and others say population and reproductive health issues were passed over largely because of United States opposition to family-planning programs.

Women's groups say they have the support of the European Union and Canada to include new language in the plan of implementation that acknowledges health care as a human right. Such language, say women's rights activists lobbying in Johannesburg, would protect women against governments that try to block women from receiving reproductive health services on religious or cultural grounds.

“If this isn't included, it will be a victory for fundamentalism and a backward step for women's rights,” said June Zeitlin, executive director of the Women's Environment and Development Organization.

Nicole Itano is a freelance writer based in Johannesburg.