Opinion

California’s paid family leave left new parents behind

Three happy fathers walking in the park with thier children. (Photo: Olesia Bilkei, via Shutterstock)

The Talk. Read. Sing.® campaign’s singing birds have been coaching us on one key note: the first years of each child’s life are a game changer. That’s because 90% of a child’s brain development happens before the age of five.

However, there’s also a narrow window in a newborn baby’s life when bonding with a parent has a profound impact on their development and future success — making those first few months matter, too. And with that, so does Paid Family Leave.

California’s Paid Family Leave program was created in 2004 as the first in the nation to honor this developmental imperative. Sadly, its 15-year old framework makes benefits inaccessible to many working parents in the state.

Many Californians are surprised to learn that employers do not contribute a cent to Paid Family Leave.

Researchers estimate that just half of eligible mothers and one-quarter of eligible fathers took paid family leave in 2017. This means that tens of thousands of newborns in California likely did not have a loving parent home talking, reading, and singing to build their future potential.

Paid Family Leave was designed to help a mother, father, or an adoptive or foster parent replace lost income while they take time off to bond with their new child. It sets the foundation a child needs to establish positive outcomes across their lifetime. It also helps new parents stabilize their employment, and their own mental and physical health during a period of immense change.

Many Californians are surprised to learn that employers do not contribute a cent to Paid Family Leave. The program is 100% worker-funded, meaning all employees contribute to a Paid Family Leave fund through their monthly payroll deductions.

The factors that prevent parents from accessing Paid Family Leave are multifold but not mystifying.

No parent should ever have to choose between their own health and the health of their child, or their career.

Once Paid Family Leave benefits kick in, new parents are paid just 60%-70% of their regular wages. For many moms and dads, this leaves a considerable pocketbook hole, making it difficult for the family to cover their basic monthly bills.

And an estimated 25 percent of California workers are not eligible for job protected leave under current law even though they are paying into the Paid Family Leave fund with each paycheck.

Without explicit job protection guarantees, many parents are reluctant to claim their benefits at all because they fear returning to work later to find that their duties have been reduced, that they’ve been demoted, or that they’ve been replaced entirely and no longer have a job.

No parent should ever have to choose between their own health and the health of their child, or their career. But, in the Golden State, this impossible choice is reality for many parents, and it disproportionately affects lower income families and communities of color.

Anyone who has been fortunate enough to take time off from work to bond with their new baby can attest to the joy it brings and the growth it promotes. And the data is clear: substantial parent-child bonding time gives children their best chance at good health and success in life. It helps reduce anxiety and promotes the ability to form healthy relationships as an adult.

As it stands today, Paid Family Leave can only be taken for up to six weeks.

The social and economic return-on-investment is multi-fold with Paid Family Leave. All of society benefits when productive, healthy children grow into productive, healthy adults.

But the benefits of Paid Family Leave don’t end here. The program also provides support for workers who must take time away from their jobs to care for a seriously ill family member, including their parents, parent-in-laws, grandparents, or spouse.

In more ways than one, Paid Family Leave provides a safety net for workers when they need it the most—times when the well-being of the ones they love must take precedent.

This is why it is so important for California to address the shortcomings of the current Paid Family Leave policy.

As it stands today, Paid Family Leave can only be taken for up to six weeks. Gov. Gavin Newsom recently signed legislation to extend this precious time to eight weeks, starting in 2021. But California must go further to make these eight weeks accessible for all working new parents.

We need Paid Family Leave to work for all working California parents and their newborns. Extending Leave to 12 weeks would help parents create a better bond with their new child, encourage their growth, and save money on unaffordable infant care. Every employee should be able to draw against a fund they’re paying into so they can care for their family.

And for the employees earning at or barely above minimum wage, California should increase the wage replacement to 100% take-home pay to ensure the stability, health and wellbeing of the entire family.

In the greatest nation on earth, in the state with the strongest economy in the nation, can we really do anything less than protect our families and invest in the future of our children? Paid family Leave can help change everything.

Ed’s Note: Lorena Gonzalez is the Assemblywoman representing District 80 in San Diego County. She  chairs the Assembly Select Committee on Women in the Workplace.

 


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