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Family Leave Guide Offers Ways to Create Programs Across U.S.

By Andrew Cohen

A new guide about the nation’s first paid family leave program, implemented six years ago in California, provides recommendations for other states to consider as they pursue similar proposals.

Produced by the law school’s Berkeley Center for Health, Economic & Family Security (Berkeley CHEFS) and the Labor Project for Working Families, the guide presents California as a model for how Americans can juggle work and family responsibilities. Since 2004, California’s program has provided more than 1 million state residents paid leave from their jobs to tend to critical life events—such as spending time with a newborn or newly adopted child, or caring for a seriously ill family member.

“More and more Americans are combining work with family responsibilities, and they can’t afford to sacrifice one or the other,” said co-author Ann O’Leary ’05, executive director of Berkeley CHEFS. “We hope this implementation guide shows how states can best pursue smart policies for modern families and the modern workforce.”

"A Guide to Implementing Paid Family Leave: Lessons from California” tracks how California’s law came to exist. That history includes the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993, which established a federal leave policy—but without any wage replacement. It also outlines the tense legislative process preceding the enactment of California’s paid leave law in 2002, and its subsequent implementation.

The 20-page guide draws on interviews with key figures who helped pass the California legislation and oversaw its early implementation. Interview subjects include legislative aides, attorneys, work/family advocates, researchers, and officials at the Employment Development Department—the agency overseeing the program.

According to the guide, California used existing structures to quickly build its paid family leave program, which also benefited from a diverse work and family coalition during its creation and implementation. The guide also says the program is efficiently administered and features a strong, cooperative relationship between advocates and the agency.

In identifying the program’s main challenges, the guide points to the lack of job protection for employees who opt to use the program, and a narrow definition of family members eligible for care under the law.

In addition, the guide offers three main recommendations to states interested in designing a paid family leave program: (1) Expand job protection laws so workers with access to paid family leave will have a job to return to; (2) create a robust outreach and education campaign to reach underserved communities; and (3) form a close working relationship between advocacy groups and the program’s administrative agency.

California workers who contribute to a state’s disability insurance are entitled to six weeks of partial pay each year while taking time off from work for qualifying life events. They may receive up to 55 percent of their weekly wages and are not required to take all six weeks consecutively.

Interest in paid family leave has steadily increased in recent years. In 2009, New Jersey became the second state to offer paid family leave benefits to its workers. In 2007, Washington passed a paid parental leave program, which has not yet been implemented. Other states seriously considering paid family leave programs include Arizona, Illinois, Maine, Massachusetts, Missouri, New Hampshire, New York, Oregon, and Pennsylvania.

President Obama’s Fiscal Year 2011 budget included a request that Congress provide funds for a “State Paid Leave Fund” to help states with start-up costs associated with paid family leave programs.