California made history on September 23, 2002, when the nation’s first comprehensive paid family leave program was signed into law by former governor Gray Davis. Benefits provided by this pioneering legislation became available to most working Californians starting on July 1, 2004. The new law provides up to six weeks of partial pay – 55% of weekly earnings up to a maximum of $728 per week – for eligible employees who need time off from work to bond with a new child or to care for a seriously ill family member. The program, funded entirely by a payroll tax on employees, builds on California’s existing State Disability Insurance (SDI) system, which for many years has provided income support for employees’ medical and pregnancy-related leaves. Like SDI, the new paid family leave program is extensive (although not universal) in coverage: apart from some selfemployed persons, virtually all private sector employees are included.1 California’s new law is especially valuable for the growing numbers of low-wage workers, many of them female, who currently have limited access to employer-sponsored fringe benefits providing paid time off (such as paid sick leave and paid vacation). Until July 1, 2004, such benefits were the main sources of income support for employees who took leaves from work to bond with a new child or to provide care for a seriously ill family member.
After briefly reviewing the various developments contributing to the recent growth in demand for time off from work as well as the political processes that led to the passage of California’s pioneering paid family leave legislation, this chapter analyzes new data on paid family leave from two recent state-level surveys—the fall 2003 Golden Bear Omnibus (GBO) survey of California adults and the 2003 Survey of California Establishments (SCE) of employers.2 Although California adults responding to the GBO survey expressed overwhelming support for the idea of paid family leave, their awareness of the new law was surprisingly limited, with only about one in five respondents indicating that they were familiar with it. Awareness of the new law was especially low among the groups that are least likely to have access to employer-sponsored paid time off: women, low-wage workers,immigrants, and disadvantaged racial-ethnic groups. Ironically, these same groups expressed disproportionately favorable attitudes toward the idea of paid leave.
The survey data also provide insight into the ways in which, prior to the implementation of the new law, employers and employees in the state handled the kinds of events that the paid family leave program now covers. Many employed Californians have taken family leaves in the past, the GBO data show. And the data from the SCE survey reveal that many employers in the state—especially those that are unionized, those with large numbers of employees, and those with a relatively large proportion of professional, managerial, and technical employees—already provided family and medical leave benefits beyond those required by law before the establishment of the new paid family leave program. The recent extension of such benefits to the much larger population covered by the legislation passed in 2002 could be its most far-reaching effect; realizing that potential, however, will require increasing public awareness of the law substantially.