Business & Economy

California lawmakers want to make paid family leave program more generous.

 Oliver Hunke, 42, a married federal employee in Germany on 6-month paternity leave, feeds his twin 14-month-old daughter Alma. Under German law married couples may take 14 months parent leave, to be divided between the two spouses. California is far less generous but is one of three states in the U.S. to provide paid family leave.
Oliver Hunke, 42, a married federal employee in Germany on 6-month paternity leave, feeds his twin 14-month-old daughter Alma. Under German law married couples may take 14 months parent leave, to be divided between the two spouses. California is far less generous but is one of three states in the U.S. to provide paid family leave.
Sean Gallup/Getty Images

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The author of a bill to expand California's paid family leave program expects his Sacramento colleagues to approve it this week. Assemblyman Jimmy Gomez of Los Angeles hopes the expansion will encourage more low-income Californians to take advantage of the program.

In 2004, California became the first state in the U.S. to offer paid family leave.  Part of the state’s disability insurance program, the benefit offers most workers six weeks of leave at 55 percent of their wages to care for a new child or a sick relative.

Gomez' bill would raise the wage replacement rate to 60 percent for most workers and to up to 70 percent for low-wage earners.

"We know this will have a big impact because then people will be able to use the program and not worry about not being able to make ends meet," Gomez said.

Gomez said Californians earning $84,000 per year or more were more likely to take advantage of the program, but minimum wage earners often decide they can’t afford to.

“It makes sense,” Gomez told KPCC. “If someone is already living paycheck to paycheck on 100 percent of their salary, what makes anyone think they can take six weeks off at 55 percent of their salary.”

He estimates that if his bill becomes law, a minimum wage earner would receive roughly $400 more than the program currently offers.  “This is real money in real people’s pockets,” Gomez said.

A market research report commissioned by the California Employment Development Department (EDD) found that the low-wage replacement rate was a key factor for both low and higher income earners in deciding not to take paid family leave (PFL).  

"This is especially pronounced in lower income potential users, who use PFL at significantly lower rates," the report states. Then it quotes a father who participated in one of the focus groups the researchers conducted: "Wage replacement is the biggest barrier for poor people like us. We’re barely getting by as it is."

The report also notes that in the first ten years of program, the EDD approved 1.8 million PFL claims for $4.6 billion in benefit payments. Ninety percent of the claims were for bonding with a new child, and 10 percent for caring for an ailing family member.

Assemblyman Gomez' original bill would have also extended the time a worker could take off while receiving the benefit payments.  It garnered wide support in both houses.  But he backed off the time extension as he tried to address concerns from Governor Jerry Brown's office.

"I think we took care of those concerns, and it's going to get a signature," Gomez said.

 He expects the Senate to vote in support of the new bill on Monday, and the Assembly will follow suit a few days later.