Couple Discussing Whether They Can Afford Family Leave

[Updated: paid family leave and job protections have been expanded in California since this post was first written.]

This is the second post in a four-part series on California’s parental and family care leave laws.

Last week, I identified the main barriers that prevent workers from taking time off to bond with new babies and care for sick relatives. In that post, I discussed the first barrier—lack of job protection—and covered some of the laws that offer job protections to California employees as well as avenues to expand them. This post discusses the second barrier that prevents employees taking time off from work to care for their child or for another family member: that they cannot financially afford to take the time off from work.

We have crafted laws that allow for workers to take unpaid leave for caregiving, including the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) and the California Family Rights Act (CFRA). However, many people who have the option of taking job-protected leave cannot do so because of the financial strain caused by unpaid leave.

What good is job-protected leave if you can’t afford to take it?

According to a 2012 Department of Labor (DOL) survey, only about 40% of employees nationally have access to fully paid FMLA leave for durations of longer than 10 days. A mere 22% of worksites offer any paid maternity leave, while only 9% offer paid paternity leave.

It is estimated that around three quarters of Americans live from paycheck-to-paycheck, with 50% having less than a three-month cushion and 27% reporting that they have no savings at all! Only 25% reported that they could weather six months of expenses if they had to live off their savings. Similarly, a 2012 survey by the American Payroll Association, reported in a Huffington Post article, found that 68% of Americans said it would be somewhat difficult or very difficult if their paychecks were delayed by a week.

It is no surprise, then, that the 2012 DOL survey found that of those who reported that they needed leave but did not take it, 46% stated that inability to afford leave was the reason they did not take leave. Of those who did take leave, nearly half (49.6%) cut their leave short because they could not afford more leave.

Here’s how this plays out in the parenting context: One in four American mothers returns to work within two months of giving birth, and 41% within three months (compare this to only 7% of mothers in the U.K.). Among the consequences, “a significant number of mothers return to work before they are physically ready,” and “their babies are less likely to be breastfed, taken to the doctor for well-baby visits, or up-to-date immunizations.” Fathers, too, are short-changed in the time they get to interact with and connect with their babies.

Paid Family Leave is available to California workers

Recognizing that caregiving workers will only be able to take family leave if they can continue to make ends meet, advocacy groups including the California Work & Family Coalition led by The Labor Project for Working Families teamed up with the California Labor Federation (the state-level AFL-CIO) worked tirelessly to help make California the first state to provide paid family leave. (A discussion of this history is contained in Putting Families First: How California Won The Fight For Paid Family Leave.) In 2002, State Senator Sheila J. Kuehl authored and introduced the paid family leave legislation, SB 1661, which passed.

Since the law took effect in 2004, California has offered a Paid Family Leave (PFL) program that provides up to six weeks of paid benefits for workers who take time off to bond with a new child or care for covered family members who are seriously ill. All employees who pay into the State Disability Insurance Fund are covered. The employees receive partial wage replacement benefits (at about 55%, to a cap of $1067 a week) through the program, which is administered by the State of California Employment Development Department’s Disability Insurance Program. This is a tremendous step in helping make family leave more financially feasible.

For pregnant/new moms, this means that they get disability payments for the time they are disabled due to their pregnancy and childbirth recovery[1], plus and an additional six weeks of paid family leave during their CFRA baby bonding time (or, if they are not covered by CFRA during the baby bonding time their employer is allowing them). For dads (and non-birthing/adoptive parents), this means they get six weeks of PFL during the CFRA/FMLA time they take to bond with their new children.

An exciting new law will make it possible to care for more family members

Currently, PFL applies only when the time off is taken to bond with a child within a year of birth or placement within adoption or foster care, or to care for seriously ill spouses, domestic partners, parents, or children. Recognizing that PFL in its existing form does not encompass the full extent of caregiving that family members provide, advocates including the California Work & Family Coalition worked to expand the coverage of PFL. Significant progress was made this year with the signing of SB 770 (Jackson) into law by Governor Brown on September 24, 2013. SB 770 will expand the coverage of the PFL program to employees who takes leave to care for seriously ill grandchildren, grandparents, siblings, or parents-in-law. These changes take effect starting July 1, 2014.

Why should we further expand PFL?

When legislation in support of PFL was introduced, the business community fought it tooth-and-nail, labeling it a “job killer.” (As was done with the FMLA and other legislation meant to protect and help employees.) Contrary to such predictions, however, PFL has been a tremendous success both for workers and employers.

According to research described in the report Leaves That Pay: Employer and Worker Experiences with Paid Family Leave in California (Eileen Appelbaum and Ruth Milkman, 2011), the vast majority of employers surveyed about the impact of the PFL program responded that it had either a “positive effect” or “no noticeable effect” on business productivity (89%), profitability/performance (91%), turnover (96%), and employee morale (99%). In addition, PFL use increased retention among workers in lower-paying jobs (as defined by the researchers, those jobs that paid $20 or less and/or did not offer employer-paid health benefits): 74% of those taking leave without PFL returned to the same employer, while 83% with PFL returned.

The effect on workers has been overwhelmingly positive. Here are just a few of the findings from the Leaves That Pay report, as they relate to PFL use by parents:

  • 91% of those who used PFL stated that it had a positive effect on their ability to care for a new baby, foster child, or adopted child.
  • The median duration of bonding leave by fathers using PFL was more than double that of those who did not use it, four weeks vs. two weeks by men in higher-paying jobs (those that paid over $20 an hour and had employer-paid health benefits) and eight weeks vs. three weeks by men in lower-paying jobs.
  • PFL doubled the median duration of breastfeeding by new mothers who used it, from five to eleven weeks by mothers in higher-paying jobs and five to nine weeks by mothers in lower-paying jobs.

By expanding PFL, we extend these sorts of benefits to caregiving workers who are either not covered or who do not have enough coverage to take the full amount of leave they would otherwise take. We as a society stand to benefit.

How do we expand PFL to make family leaves financially possible?

Here are some ways that PFL can be expanded:

  1. Extending the duration of paid family leave beyond six weeks so that workers can afford to take longer leaves;
  2. Increasing the level of wage replacement to a higher percentage of earnings so that more workers can afford to take leave
  3. Expanding PFL to cover public employees; and
  4. Changing the law so that PFL is job protected.

1. Extending the duration of PFL beyond six weeks

PFL, as originally proposed by SB 1661, was to last 12 weeks, with contributions coming evenly from both employers and employees. Ultimately, to get the votes needed to pass, the bill was modified to cut benefits down from 12 weeks to 6 weeks and the employer contribution was removed. With nearly a decade of success, the time may be right to extend PFL to the originally-intended 12 weeks.

2. Increasing the level of PFL wage replacement

According to the Leaves That Pay report, 31.2% of workers who did not apply for PFL gave the reason that they would not have received enough money. For this reason, the report’s authors propose increasing the wage replacement from 55% to 66.7% to make family leave affordable to more workers.

3. Expanding PFL to cover public employees

It may come as a surprise that most of California’s public employees are not eligible for PFL because they are not covered by the state disability insurance (SDI) program. While some public-sector employers voluntarily provide SDI and PFL coverage, most do not, leaving less than one-fifth of public employees with access to PFL (according to unpublished EDD data contained in the Leaves That Pay report). More than 21% of public employees in higher-paying jobs and 48% of those in lower-paying jobs receive no pay at all while on family leave, so the need for coverage is there.

4. Making PFL job-protected

Currently, PFL does not provide job-protected leave. This means is that employees who are not eligible for CFRA/FMLA—because they do not work for a large-enough employer, don’t meet the eligibility criteria, or are caring for a family member outside the scope of CFRA/FMLA—are not job-protected, even if they are entitled to paid benefits under PFL. Essentially, this means that those workers who are entitled to PFL but not CFRA/FMLA can be denied that time off by their employers. SB 761 (DeSaulnier), introduced this year, sought to prohibit retaliation against workers for taking paid family leave, but was held in committee. With further advocacy work, hopefully similar legislation will be reintroduced next year and will pass!


Californians have only to gain by expanding paid family leave to allow workers to take time off to bond with their babies and care for family members, particularly as it helps lower-wage workers who could not otherwise afford to take the time off.

In my next blog post, I will address the third major barrier to workers taking family leave: lack of knowledge by workers as to what their leave rights are.


[1] Pregnancy disability leave paid through EDD is available for women during the time they are unable to work due to pregnancy, childbirth, and related conditions. The standard disability period for a normal, complication-free pregnancy is up to four weeks before the expected delivery date followed by six to eight weeks after the actual delivery (six weeks post-birth for a vaginal delivery and eight weeks post-birth for an otherwise healthy c-section). Other issues, like post-partum depression or healing from complications could extend that time further.

Barriers to Family Leave, Part 2 was last modified: September 3rd, 2020 by Ramit Mizrahi
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