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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Paid Family Leave in California: New Research Findings


Ruth Milkman and Eileen Appelbaum examine one of California’s most important recent legislative initiatives: the paid family leave law that was passed in 2002 and took effect in mid-2004. California is the first state in the nation to provide paid family leave to its workers. The authors review the developments leading to the establishment of this new program, which builds on California’s longstanding State Disability Insurance system. The paid leave program covers virtually all private sector workers (unlike the federal Family and Medical Leave Act which is restricted to relatively large employers), and thus should in principle provide universal coverage. The authors use data from two surveys: the Golden Bear Omnibus survey, which investigated public attitudes about paid leave, public awareness of the state’s new paid family leave law, employees’ previous experience with family and medical leave, and employees’ expectations about future needs for leave; and the Survey of California Establishments, which examined the extent to which California employers provided family and medical leave benefits beyond what was legally required prior to the implementation of the new law, as well as employers’ recent experience with such leaves. The authors’ analysis reveals that relatively few Californians—only about one in five—are aware that the new paid family leave program exists. Moreover, workers with the most family-friendly employers are more likely to learn about the paid family leave law than are those who are employed by “low-road” companies and who are most in need of paid leave. The danger is that the benefits from the new program will go disproportionately to the state’s more privileged workers, many of whom already enjoy the functional equivalent of paid family leave via other employer-sponsored fringe benefits. If nothing is done to increase the visibility of the state’s much-celebrated paid family leave program among low-wage workers, immigrants, and others who need it most, the already entrenched inequality that is so deeply embedded in the state’s labor market and wider social organization may become characteristic of this arena as well, despite the fact that the clear intent of the law is to provide universal coverage.

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