California May Make Family Leave 'Paid' Leave

By | July 7, 2008 | 8:04 PM EDT

Sacramento ( - Workers in California could be first in the nation to collect disability pay for taking time off to care for an ill family member, under a bill now on the governor's desk.

Introduced by state Sen. Sheila James Kuehl, a Democrat, the proposed state law would allow workers to take up to six weeks of paid leave to care for a new child, a seriously ill family member or a domestic partner, or bond with a new foster or adopted child.

California's Democrat Gov. Gray Davis has until Sept. 30 to sign the bill, veto it, or let it become law without his signature.

While both California and federal law currently allow workers to take up to 12 weeks off to care for family members, that leave is unpaid. But many workers complain they can't afford to take advantage of unpaid leave.

The current law provides workers only a "shadow promise" of being able to care for their family members in time of need, said state Sen. Kuehl in a recent interview.

Under her proposal, beginning Jan. 1, 2004, workers in California would receive 55 percent of their salary, up to a maximum of $728 a week. That sum eventually would increase in line with the state's average weekly wage.

While no state currently offers paid leave, 27 states have considered similar measures recently. According to the state Legislature's analysis, 130 countries have paid family leave policies.

Under California's proposal -- outlined in Senate Bill 1661 -- employees' paid leave benefits would be funded through a new disability insurance tax, which would cost individual workers an estimated $25-$45 a year.

The leave benefits, paid through the State Disability Insurance Program, would be dispersed at the same level injured or ill workers currently receive. Workers today pay 0.9 percent of their gross pay, or up to $417 per year, in state disability insurance premiums.

While the majority of California's 13 million workers would be able to participate in the new family leave program, most government employees would be ineligible because their disability entitlement benefits are provided through a taxpayer-funded alternative to the
program that covers most private-sector workers.

Although significantly weaker than when it was first introduced, the bill is still vehemently opposed by business groups, who say it will reduce productivity.

The bill is a "job killer," said the state's Chamber of Commerce.

In 1993, when California lawmakers approved the state's unpaid leave program, businesses were assured that proponents would not seek to turn it into a paid program, as the legislature has done.

"I hope this is a lesson for the next Republican governor, or the next Republican president before they sign this kind of bill," said Republican state Sen. Ray Haynes.

"Once Democrats control every thing, they are going to start raising taxes and raising benefits to pay for these screwball ideas."