163 countries, including all industrialized nations, guarantee paid leave to women in connection with childbirth, while only the US and Australia do not. This marks the first tiny (and flawed) step in alleviating this problem.
This month, California became the first state in the nation to offer paid leave to workers who need to take time off to care for a sick family member or a new baby.
Under the program, most workers in California are eligible to receive up to 55 percent of their pay for six weeks per year. Though the policy does have some restrictions, it has been hailed by advocates for women and families as a positive step for California’s workers, who represent about ten percent of the nation’s total workforce.
“My husband and I just bought a home, and the mortgage payments don’t stop when a baby comes,” mother-to-be and full-time worker Jessica Bartholow told the Christian Science Monitor. “This is going to help us to keep the bills paid while taking care of our family.”
Federal law already requires businesses with over 50 employees to grant twelve weeks of unpaid leave to workers and guarantee their jobs. But according to the Christian Science Monitor, the federal version, called the Family and Medical Leave Act, covers only 50-60 percent of workers in the US.
Under California’s new paid family leave program, both large and small businesses are required to grant six weeks a year of partially paid leave to their employees. However, only businesses with more than 50 employees will be required to guarantee workers on paid leave will still have a job when they return. According to the Small Business Association, businesses with less than 50 workers employ about 28 percent of the national workforce.
The funds for paid leave are distributed through the State Disability Insurance Program, thus only employees who are required to pay into that program are eligible to receive paid family leave.
This includes all private sector workers and some government employees.
The program replaces up to 55 percent or $728 per week — whichever is lower — of employees’ wage when they need to take time off to be with a newborn child or care for a seriously ill family member. Guardians can also receive the benefit when taking time off to bond with an adopted or foster child, and time off to care for a sick or injured domestic partner is also included.
Even though studies have shown that companies already offering paid leave to their employees have benefited from higher worker retention rates and more productive employees, there was strong opposition to the bill from the business community. Business interests successfully lobbied to cut the paid leave time in half and for the removal of a proposed employer payroll tax to fund the measure. Instead, the measure is entirely funded by deductions from workers’ paychecks that average $27 per worker each year.
Yet, some segments of the business community are still unhappy with the measure. “It’s going to entice more people into taking that leave than would have otherwise,” Michael Shaw, assistant state director of the National Federation of Independent Business, which represents some 35,000 small companies in California, told National Public Radio. Shaw called paid family leave another onerous burden on California’s employers. “It puts small businesses in particular dangerous situation by mandating a leave program on the businesses that can least afford the lost of that productivity.”
Though the potential benefits or drawbacks for the business community are still being debated, the paid leave initiative is widely expected to provide much-needed assistance to eligible workers. Proponents of the measure say receiving even partial pay for time away from work to attend to crucial family needs will help workers balance their work and personal lives.
“Thousands of Californians will now be spared the impossible choice between caring for a seriously ill family member and bringing home a paycheck — a dilemma far too many workers in the rest of the country still face,” write Eileen Appelbaum and Ruth Milkman of the Rutgers University Center for Women and Work and the UCLA Institute of Industrial Relations respectively in a column for the Center for American Progress.
The Labor Project for Working Families, an organization that works with unions, union members, community groups, progressive organizations and other activists on job and family issues nationwide, is encouraging unions to use collective bargaining agreements to close what they see as the gaps in the California paid leave law.
For instance, labor advocates take issue with the fact that the law does not require businesses with less than 50 employees to guarantee job security to workers taking paid leave. There is also a seven-day waiting period before the paid leave money kicks in and employers may require workers to use up to two weeks’ vacation or sick days before becoming eligible for the benefit. Additionally, some public sector workers are not eligible for the paid leave benefit at all.
Also, a recent survey of California workers found that although money has been deducted from paychecks since the beginning of the year and the benefits have been available since July 1, most people still do not know they are eligible for paid leave. A recent study by the California Family Leave Research Project of the UCLA Institute for Public Relations found that, despite extensive public support for paid leave, only 22 percent of Californians were aware that they would be eligible for the benefits. The new law states that employers must explain the benefits to all new employees as well as any eligible employee planning to take leave.
Advocates for workers’ and families’ rights are also quick to point out that even with the new law, California, not to mention the rest of the US, trails far behind most of the world in providing paid leave benefits to workers.
“What you find is incredibly stark about where the US fits with respect to the rest of the world,” Jody Heymann, associate professor at the Harvard School of Public Health, told the Christian Science Monitor. Heymann and her colleagues at Global Working Families, which researches the relationship between working conditions and family health, conducted a study to see how the US compares to the rest of the world in meeting the needs of working families.
They found that 163 countries, including all industrialized nations, guarantee paid leave to women in connection with childbirth, while only the US and Australia do not. While Australia provides a full year of unpaid leave to its working mothers, the US only guarantees twelve weeks to approximately half of its mothers.
Still, advocates for paid leave see the California measure as a significant step in the struggle for workers’ rights, and they note that other states as well as the federal government will be watching California closely in the coming months. In 2003, lawmakers in over 24 states introduced proposed paid leave legislation, and at the federal level, the proposed Healthy Families Act would require businesses with at least fifteen employees to provide seven days of paid family leave.
“Giving workers financial security by allowing them to take paid leave for their own serious health problems, or when illness strikes a family member, not only strengthens children and families but improves worker morale and productivity,” write Appelbaum and Milkman. “In a nation that prides itself on family values, every worker — not just those lucky enough to live and work in California — should have a guarantee of paid family and medical leave.”
Author: Jessica Azulay
News Service: New Standard News