At any point in their lives, workers may need to take time off to care for either a new child or a sick family member. While we have state and federal laws to protect workers from losing their jobs or benefits when they take leave, the leave time is mostly unpaid. Unpaid leave hurts a family's income and economic security -- many of our working families, especially in this economy, live at the margin and can't afford to take leave without pay.
No worker should have to make the difficult choice between a paycheck and being there for a loved one.
Ten years ago, labor unions and community organizations in California came together to ensure that our working families did not have to make this difficult choice. We successfully advocated for and passed the California Paid Family Leave (PFL) Act in 2002.
The PFL law established the first-of-its-kind family leave insurance program in the nation. The program began in 2004 and it provides virtually ALL California workers, regardless of citizenship status, up to six weeks of partial wage replacement when they need to take time off from work to care for a seriously ill child, spouse, parent, or registered domestic partner, or bond with a new child (birth, foster or adoptive).
PFL operates as an insurance program for workers who have already paid for it through a very small payroll contribution into the State Disability Insurance program (SDI). Since PFL began, over one million people have taken advantage of this program in California; however, participation is still far below the number of eligible workers.
During 2010-2011, only 205,000 PFL claims were filed in the state of California. A 2011 research report, Leaves That Pay: Employer and Worker Experiences with Paid Family Leave in California, reveals only half of workers with qualifying circumstances even know PFL exists. Low-wage workers, immigrants and Latinos are even less likely to be aware of the program.
Going without pay at the very time a family has new or additional responsibilities is worse for both new children and the ill -- and can send families into poverty. Less than half of employed mothers in our country receive any pay during maternity leave, and the birth of a new child is one of the key triggers for bankruptcy. For low-wage workers and immigrants, who are especially vulnerable to loss of income during times of need, the PFL program greatly improves financial stability for families.
In fact, studies show that the program helps maintain stability in earnings for families and protects and improves the socio-economic status of women workers. Women who take paid leave after childbirth are more likely to remain in the workforce and receive increased wages. And compared to women who do not take leave, paid or unpaid, after childbirth, they're less likely to rely on public assistance during the nine to 12 months after childbirth.
Family leave insurance programs like PFL are not only good for workers and families, but they are also good for businesses. Workers stay attached to the workforce, and businesses save money by reducing turnover costs.
But despite its many benefits (not to mention the legal obligation to provide employees with information about the PFL program), many employers just don't know about it... and subsequently, their workers don't either.
There are several things California's communities can do to help raise awareness and increase access to PFL:
Clearly, the impact of paid family leave for working families is huge. Programs like PFL help workers hold on to their pay, which they can spend in their communities. Such policies help keep people on their jobs, boost productivity, stimulate the economy and save businesses money.
This article originally appeared on Labor's Edge.
Follow María Elena Durazo on Twitter: www.twitter.com/@LALabor