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The Brood: The state of paid family leave in the US




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Yesterday, California Governor Jerry Brown signed off on a bill expanding the state's paid family leave benefits.

As of now, Californians can take up to six weeks off of work to bond with a new child or care for sick family members. While doing so, they can receive 55 percent of their usual wages.

Come 2018, that amount will go up to 60 percent of income for higher-wage workers. Those making less will receive 70 percent of their pay.

California Assemblyman Jimmy Gomez (D-Echo Park) says he wrote the bill after finding that many of the lowest-income workers were not utilizing California's existing paid leave program. 

"It was really because the program says it's 55 percent wage replacement for six weeks of leave," Gomez told KPCC. "But if you've ever made minimum wage, or even just struggled to get by, if you're living paycheck-to-paycheck on 100 percent of your salary, what makes anybody think they can take off six weeks at half their wage?"

The boost to paid family leave benefits in California comes on the heels of two big developments on the paid leave front last week.

In San Francisco, the Board of County Supervisors unanimously approved full pay during family leave.  And in New York, Governor Andrew Cuomo signed a family leave law that gives workers up to 12 weeks of paid leave, twice as long as any other state.

Brigid Schulte, author of the book "Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time," says the U.S. still lags far behind other countries when it comes to parental leave.

"It's pretty clear, looking at the data, we are at the bottom of the barrel," Schulte says. "The United States is the only advanced economy that has no national paid parental leave program."

The U.S. does have a federal law that offers 12 weeks of unpaid family leave, but it only applies to workers who have worked for a company for more than a year, and who work full-time at companies with 50 or more employees. 

"That means that 40 percent of the work force doesn't even have unpaid family leave," Schulte says. "And when it comes to paid family leave only 13 percent of the civilian work force has access to any kind of paid leave at all."

But, Schulte says, paid parental leave is finally becoming part of the national conversation in the U.S., state and local laws are changing, and "this is the first time ever that you have presidential candidates actually talking about paid parental leave."

Assemblyman Gomez says he's seen the conversation around paid family leave change in the 14 years since California became the first state in the nation to guarantee workers some form of paid leave.

"It took a long time," Gomez says, "we passed this program in 2002, but now there's this national debate... about paid family leave and making sure that people don't have to struggle when these life changes occur."