Welcoming a new child into the world is a major, life-changing event — and combining the stress of parenting with figuring out how to take the necessary time off from work to bond with your new addition can be downright overwhelming. Luckily for Orange County resident Arissa Palmer and millions of other Californians, California’s Paid Family Leave (PFL) program makes it possible to take time off from work to bond with a new baby while still getting a portion of your pay.
Enacted in 2004, California’s PFL program provides working Californians up to six weeks of partially paid leave to either bond with a new child (including biological, foster, or adopted children) or to care for a seriously ill family member (child, parent, parent-in-law, grandparent, grandchild, sibling, spouse, or registered domestic partner). In Palmer’s case, she took these six weeks, in combination with leave she had through her employer, to bond with her newborn with confidence that she would have partial income and that her job would still be waiting for her when she returned.
“Without Paid Family Leave, I would have had to go back to work sooner,” Palmer explained. “I had a mortgage to pay and my husband is a teacher and he isn’t paid through the summer so it would have been doubly hard for us.”
Palmer knows the difference PFL benefits made for her family and how it could help so many more working parents. But, as the executive director of BreastfeedLA — a non-profit that is part of the California Work & Family Coalition focused on supporting and promoting breastfeeding through education, advocacy, and outreach – she has met many people who have never heard of California PFL, do not realize that they are eligible for PFL, or are unaware of what the program will provide for them.
Even among those who know the program exists, many people don’t realize that they themselves are already paying for their PFL benefits through mandatory pay deductions into State Disability Insurance (noted as “CASDI” on paystubs). Therefore using this program is not a form of government assistance, but is really money that people have invested for just this purpose – to take time with their families when they’re needed the most.
For some new parents, these misconceptions alone caused them not to utilize PFL. For others Palmer knows – especially lower-income parents – the fact that PFL only provided up to 55 percent of a worker’s wages was still not enough to make taking leave affordable.
“We had a big Advocacy Day Training on August 31st with over 300 participants, cosponsored by MOMS Orange County and First 5 California, among others, and there are still so many who are unaware of their rights, what their benefits are and what they are eligible for,” said Palmer. “And even if you do know your benefits, if you’re the primary caregiver of your family, ultimately it still may not be enough.”
The good news is that the PFL wage replacement rate is increasing for many Californians. As of January 1, 2018, California PFL now offers eligible Californians up to 70 percent of their pay during their leave — the highest wage replacement rate in the country – and has removed the weeklong waiting period that participants previously had to serve before receiving their benefits. These changes mean more Californians will have the support they need to spend valuable time with their loved ones during the moments that matter.
As the first state in the country to offer paid family leave in 2002, California has set the standard for other states to follow, and California continues to lead the way. For example, in 2013, Governor Jerry Brown signed Senate Bill 770 by State Senator Hannah-Beth Jackson (D-Santa Barbara) that extended the PFL program to include caregiving for a seriously ill parent-in-law, grandparent, grandchild, or sibling. And in 2016, with the support of a wide range of stakeholders including the California Work & Family Coalition, he signed the most recent PFL expansion that increased the wage replacement rate and removed the seven-day waiting period.
As part of the effort to make PFL accessible to more workers throughout California, the six weeks of leave do not have to be taken all at once. The time off and the PFL benefits can be split over a 12-month period so that the leave can be modified to fit the individual’s schedule. Splitting up this time could be useful for those who, for example, want to coordinate their leave with the other parent when bonding with a new child, or with a spouse or sibling when caring for an ill family member.
Equally importantly, most Californians can have confidence that their jobs will be safe while taking PFL. Although PFL itself does not provide job protection, workers are often protected through the federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), the California Family Rights Act (CFRA), the California Pregnancy Disability Leave (PDL) law, or the New Parent Leave Act.
The New Parent Leave Act is one of the most recent protections for new parents that also goes into effect this year and requires small businesses with 20 or more employees to provide eligible employees up to 12 weeks of unpaid, job-protected leave to bond with a new child. This law is a crucial step in protecting the rights of small-business workers, and while this bill does not provide protections for people taking PFL for caregiving, it still provides a protected opportunity to bond with a new child.
Becoming a parent — whether for the first time or the fifth time — is always a momentous occasion. California parents can be proud that their state takes bonding with a new child so seriously and leads the nation in providing partial wage replacement benefits during this important time in a family’s life. Palmer and millions of Californians who have benefitted from PFL know that the program is there for families during the moments that matter – and hopefully, millions more people will take the time to be there for their new children in 2018, too. To learn more about California PFL, visit www.californiapaidfamilyleave.com.