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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:

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.

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