15 Years, Five Key Lessons: California Continues to Lead the Nation Toward Paid Leave for All

By Vicki Shabo

With recent attention to the country’s dismal record of making paid leave available to workers, and growing consensus around the need for a national solution, it’s easy to forget the decades of work and milestone victories that have made this moment possible. One of the first happened 15 years ago this week, when California created the nation’s first state paid family leave program. Since then, California has twice improved the program, and a third improvement awaits the governor’s signature. The state’s success has helped build a growing list of business leaders who support national paid leave, and paved the way for four states and the District of Columbia to enact similar programs. And our understanding of what a meaningful paid family and medical leave program must include has grown tremendously as a result.

As the home of 10 percent of the U.S. population and the most diverse state in the nation, California is a valuable case study in how paid leave can and has worked at the state level. Its law created a paid family leave insurance program that built on the state’s temporary disability insurance system. The program enables eligible workers to take up to six weeks of partially paid leave to bond with a newborn, newly adopted or newly placed foster child, or to care for a family member with a serious health condition. Here’s just some of what it has taught us so far:

  1. Paid family leave is reasonable and used as intended. As of June 2017, California’s program had been used nearly 2.7 million times by people who needed leave to care for a new child or seriously ill family member. And of the state’s 14 million private sector workers, fewer than 2 percent applied for leave through the program in the past year, which suggests people are requesting leave appropriately. The California Society for Human Resource Management, a group of human resources professionals that initially opposed the law, has said the program is less onerous than expected and few businesses report challenges associated with employees taking leave.
  2. Paid family leave results in more equitable leave-taking. California’s program has reduced disparities across race and gender. Before the program was in place, Black mothers in the state took, on average, just one week of maternity leave while white mothers took four weeks. Now, Black women take an average of six weeks — the same amount as white women. And the average for all new mothers has doubled from three weeks to six weeks. The number of fathers requesting leave has grown especially dramatically — by 400 percent in the program’s first seven years alone. Today, men make nearly 40 percent of parental leave requests.
  3. Paid family leave helps employers, in addition to workers and families. The vast majority of California employers report that the state’s paid family leave law has had a positive or no noticeable effect on profitability and employee productivity and performance. Businesses with fewer than 50 employees in particular say it has had a positive or neutral effect on profitability, productivity and employee morale. The same survey revealed that three in five California employers report coordinating their paid leave policies with the state’s insurance program, likely resulting in cost savings.
  4. Paid family leave must reflect the diversity of families and care needs today. In addition to demonstrating that providing gender-neutral access to paid leave has a significantly positive effect on the number of men who take leave and provide care, California’s program has also taught us that even more family members need and provide care today. In 2013, after it became clear that the program was not adequately meeting the state’s family caregiving needs, lawmakers expanded it to include grandparents, grandchildren, siblings and parents-in-law as family members for whom people can take leave.
  5. Paid family leave must adequately protect workers’ wages and jobs. In 2016, after studies showed that many lower-wage workers couldn’t afford to use California’s program, and even higher-wage workers said affordability was an issue, the state increased the wage replacement rate from 55 percent to 70 percent for low-income workers and to 60 percent for higher-income workers. And earlier this month, because only people who work for employers with 50 or more employees have job protection under the law — meaning they are entitled to the same or an equivalent job when returning from leave — the legislature passed a bill to extend that protection to new parents who work for smaller employers. Gov. Brown has until Oct. 15 to sign the measure.

Many of the states and municipalities that have established paid leave programs and policies in the years following California’s law have applied these lessons by not only prioritizing the issue, but also by enacting broader definitions of “family,” providing more progressive wage replacement, and taking steps to provide job protection for more workers. The most recent states to act, New York and Washington, have gone a step further to provide more weeks of leave. These programs are building on the successes and challenges experienced in California, further refining what a strong paid leave policy looks like.

As the national conversation about paid leave continues, lawmakers should pay close attention to the years of research and policy testing that has been happening in California, other states and municipalities, and within the private sector. There are valuable lessons to be learned about what works, and the details matter tremendously. The nation needs a smart program that builds on these lessons and checks all the boxes. Right now, the Family And Medical Insurance Leave (FAMILY) Act is the only federal proposal that does so. Its passage should be the country’s next paid leave milestone.