Paying for Family Leave: California Was the First to Pass a Paid Family Leave Law. Now Other States Are Considering Following in the Golden State's Footsteps

Article excerpt

The United States is a leader in protecting workers' rights. We offer unemployment benefits to the jobless and compensate those injured on the lob. Despite these worker friendly policies, this country is one of only two industrialized nations (the other is Australia) that do not offer paid family and medical leave (FMLA) benefits.

California, however, has become the first state in the nation to pass a paid FMLA law, and other states are beginning to consider it. Is the addition of another social program a byproduct of budget surpluses of the past? Or is paid family and medical leave an issue whose time has come?

MAJOR TRANSITION FOR FAMILIES

The transition of American families from stay-at-home moms and working dads to two working parents creates new pressures. In response, Congress passed the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 that provides up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave for working parents. Since 1993, 35 million workers have used unpaid time off to care for sick or injured family members or for the birth or adoption of a new child.

Although millions of families take advantage of this law, many more cannot go 12 weeks without a paycheck. A U.S. Department of Labor study in 2000 indicated that 77 percent of surveyed workers did not take advantage of unpaid family or medical leave because they simply could not afford to.

California passed SB 1661 in September to try to address this issue. The new law, sponsored by Senator Sheila Kuehl, will offer 13 million of the state's 16 million private sector workers up to six weeks of partial pay for family and medical leave. The law goes into effect in 2004. It will be financed through employee contributions and administered by the State Disability Insurance program. The average yearly contribution per worker is estimated to be $36.

Employees will receive up to 55 percent in replacement wages while on leave, up to a maximum of $728 a week. The law will require a one-week waiting period and permits an employer to require employees to use available vacation time before they take the paid leave.

PROS AND CONS

Supporters believe that paid leave allows workers to balance the demands of home with those of career and that it contributes to higher employee morale, which in turn may reduce turnover. They say unpaid leave does not permit enough workers to spend time with their families. …