This July marked the sixth anniversary of the nation's first state law that provides comprehensive paid family leave. Passed in 2002 and in effect since July 2004, California's paid family leave insurance program provides most workers with six weeks a year of partial pay (55% of wages up to a weekly max -- $987 per week in 2010) during unpaid time off from work to care for a newborn, new adopted or foster child, or seriously ill parent, child, spouse, or domestic partner.
Is family leave just a frill? Hardly. In a recession, having it makes a significant economic difference for families -- including new mothers, for whom no paid leave can mean having to return to work within days of giving birth, fresh stitches and all. Real stories of real families for whom paid leave made the difference paint a vivid picture. (Stories courtesy of the California Work and Family Coalition -- which spearheaded the effort to the pass California's law -- and its website, with thanks to Netsy Firestein and Brandy Davis of the Labor Project for Working Families.)
My husband was laid off in February and our son was born in April. With my husband out of work we fell behind on our bills and mortgage. Disability and paid family leave is the only way I could have stayed home and not returned to work immediately after the birth of our son. My husband is back at work now and I am able to stay home a few more weeks with paid family leave until our premature son is a little older and I have to return to work.
Keep in mind, it's not that these families failed to save in anticipation of the birth of a child. Just the opposite. Said one:
It's hard if not impossible to get by, even for a short time, on one paycheck and it breaks my heart to be faced with the reality that I will likely not be able to stay home with our daughter during her formative first year due to finances. And we saved for a year before her birth so that we could afford me to take some time off. Please keep supporting California working families by continuing these essential services so that families receive the help they need.
At least some paid family leave seems fundamental in a society where the medical establishment now advises women to breastfeed for twelve months. Breastfeeding helps build a child's immunity, and is especially important for children with allergies. Said one mother:
I'm just about to return to work after enjoying 12 weeks at home with my newborn baby, through the combination of pregnancy disability leave and paid family leave. Without these programs my family and I would have been in financial ruin as we relied on my income. Because of the 12 weeks that I had with my daughter we were able to establish a solid breastfeeding relationship which we plan to continue when I return to work.
Family leave also is important for fathers. Linda Haas's studies of Sweden have found that fathers who take parental leave establish a closer relationship with their children, and that taking family leave changes a father's relationship with his child forever. Now Californians find this, too.
Paid family leave has enabled my husband to spend more time with myself and our newborn, therefore establishing stronger family and parent infant bond. Although he did not take his full leave the few weeks he did take were by far irreplaceable. Thank you so much for recognizing this important and pivotal time in family life.
Family leave is not just for parents. It also protects families who face health problems from going bankrupt or losing their homes.
I'm a union electrician, and therefore me and many of my brothers and sisters are used to being at the receiving end of "hard times" in this state, suffice to say this country. My wife recently had surgery to remove her gall bladder [three days of disability leave]. During the same month, her mom had a major surgery operation [one day of paid family leave]. If my wife hadn't received financial assistance for those several days, we wouldn't have been able to make our mortgage payment for that month.
This reinforces the obvious point: doesn't it make more sense, from a purely economic standpoint, to give paid family leave rather than having Americans go bankrupt or lose their homes because of an illness in the family?
Last but not least, one in four Americans are caring for elderly relatives -- and the numbers will continue to rise for the foreseeable future.
My Mother collapsed on Thanksgiving morning, after an ill-advised visit to a daughter's in Lancaster. Extreme cold is not good for heart and lung disease. My Mother almost died. With her transfer once stabilized... my Sister and I began to take turns spending the night with her in the hospital for two weeks. My Mother was barely alert. From there we began to make daily visits for two weeks to the rehab to encourage her. To now taking turns spending just about every night with her while she is in Hospice Care at home... This would not been possible... without the paid leave benefit. It gives great peace of mind, during these times of travail.
Again, the economic themes emerge. Is it really more economic to require that families get evicted if a mother needs care?
My mother had Stage IV breast cancer earlier this year, and Paid Family Leave allowed me to be able to take the time I needed off of work to travel to Texas and take care of her during her final months. There is absolutely no way I could have managed to keep my apartment (and life) here in California while taking unpaid leave from work... I am very grateful that I live in one of the few states that offers this benefit!
The Center for WorkLife Law, which I run, has a carefully preserved policy of neutrality on many issues, because we work with a wide variety of stakeholders, including businesses and management-side employment lawyers. So I am speaking only for myself here. But it seems to me that paid leave is a no-brainer as a way to keep people in their homes, attached to their jobs, and able to function in our economy -- especially where, as in California, it is financed by the workers themselves as a small contribution to the existing State Disability Insurance program. But the deeper point is this: do we really want to live in a society where ordinary Americans have to choose between their jobs and leaving their elderly mothers to die alone?
(c) Joan C. Williams
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