When it comes to paid family leave, California leads the way. This has been a tough fight in a number of states, but California has been setting precedents that other states will soon follow. It is critical that you understand the process, your potential eligibility, and just how difficult the process has been to win these unique rights above those of other states.

What is Paid Family Leave?

In California, there is a complex network of medical leave and family laws that overlap. Workers will need their time off in order to care for themselves and their family. However, many workers have found that taking any unpaid time off can place a serious economic burden on their families. Some families have been forced to make a difficult choice—to forgo caring for their family when medical issues arise, or to leave their jobs, risking economic uncertainty. California became the very first state in the U.S. to create a Paid Family Leave (PFL) program in 2002.

The Paid Family Leave (PFL) program is an insurance program for family leave providing income replacement to eligible employees for family caregiving or time to bond with a new child. Other federal and state laws like the federal Family and Medical Leave Act provide periods of leave if a worker's job is protected. However, state-based Paid Family Leave insurance is what can pay for a portion of wages (for qualified employees). The Paid Family Leave (PFL) program began in July 2004.

Workers who can contribute to the California State Disability Insurance (SDI) fund have entitlements to six weeks of partial pay every year while taking time off from work so they can bond with their newborn baby, foster or adopted child and to care for any seriously ill child, grandparent, parent-in-law, sibling, child, registered domestic partner, or spouse.

How the Process Works

If you make a contribution to the California State Disability Insurance (SDI) fund, eligibility is available to you for income replacement with a pair of state-run programs:

  • Disability Insurance (DI) works when you are on leave for a disability or illness, which includes disabilities relating to pregnancy.
  • Paid Family Leave (PFL) applies when you are on leave to care for a family member with a serious illness or to bond with your new child.

Workers eligible for Paid Family Leave (PFL) could receive up to 55 percent of their weekly wages not to exceed a specified maximum. This amount is determined by the worker’s weekly wages during a base period. Workers are not required to take all six weeks at once. Your PFL can be taken on a daily, weekly, or even hourly basis as the need requires. Before you receive any benefits, there will be a waiting period of seven days.

How Can I Apply?

PFL gets its funding through worker contributions. It is not administered by your employer, but by the California Employment Development Department. If you want to inquire about the status of an application, or request one for yourself, you can contact the EDD directly. Applications cannot be submitted earlier than nine days before and must be submitted at least 49 days after the day you begin your leave.

Brown Signs California Law to Boost Paid Family Leave Benefits

On a crisp Monday in April 2016, Gov. Jerry Brown signed a bill which would expand California’s family-leave law. This bill was designed to help a wider range of low-income workers and offer overall better benefits. Brown stated, "It's a real pleasure [to] sign another bill that helps ordinary Californians." This action came 15 years once California became the very first state in the country guaranteeing workers PTO to provide care for ailing family members or their new child. The measure allowed people who earned near minimum wage to be given 70 percent of their earnings while they were on leave. Those with greater pay, up to a maximum of $108,000 annually, would receive 60 percent of their salary. The California law is planned to take effect in 2018.

Brown stated that globalization is putting pressure on benefits and wages. "California is doing more probably in the aggregate than any other state," Brown mentioned. He signed the bill in a well-attended ceremony at his office while encircled by supporters for the poor and Californians who would benefit from this new policy. President Obama praised the new law in a statement for setting a strong precedent for the country to follow.

Assemblyman Jimmy Gomez (a Democrat from Echo Park) first introduced they measure based on his own personal experience. As a kid, Gomez spent one week in the hospital with pneumonia, which had caused major financial adversity for his family, he explained. San Francisco’s new benefits policy is considered the best in the country, having recently approved measures that require businesses to give new parents six full weeks of time off with full pay. Gomez wanted to push the bill this year in order to capitalize on the fact that both presidential candidates for the Democratic Party, Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton, were focusing on paid family leave.

The bill had supporters in both labor and business, along with Attorney General Kamala Harris, Los Angeles’ Mayor Eric Garcetti, and Jenya Cassidy, who is the director of the California Work & Family Coalition. The enhanced benefits are going to cost roughly $587 million each year by 2021, which will require the state to increase the amount that workers will put into the fund. Supporters say that currently, insufficient benefits are hurting participation. According to the EDD, over 2 million claims had been paid, but only 13.1 million Californians were actually covered by the program. Roughly 90 percent of claims were filed by parents hoping to devote time with their new child, while just 10 percent of claims were used to care for a critically ill family member.

How California's 'Paid Family Leave' Law Buys Time for New Parents

In 2002, California passed a law providing paid family leave benefits to all eligible workers. The law actually mimicked paid parental leave policies that are in effect in many other countries around the world in many key ways. This was the first law of its kind in the U.S.  Several other states have now followed California’s lead.

How California's law works as part of the state's disability insurance program:

  • The majority workers in the state only have small deductions (less than a percent of their total wages) withheld from their regular paycheck.
  • This program works similarly to the federal Social Security system, which creates a pool of money that employees can draw from if they ever need to take time off work to care for an ailing family member, or when a new child is introduced into the home.
  • New mothers and fathers will receive six weeks off at roughly half their weekly pay with a cap indexed to inflation every year.
  • Since the family leave law went into effect over a decade ago, it's had a positive impact, according to sociologist Ruth Milkman, a professor at the City University of New York. He has studied the law and the impact of it extensively.
  • More than 90 percent of businesses reported a neutral or positive impact on their companies after the law was passed. The positive impact was attributed to increased morale and productivity.
  • Families have also reported many positive changes.
  • There has been a steady, increase in the number of new fathers taking paternity leave in order to bond with their new babies.
  • The length of time during which new moms breastfeed their children has doubled.
  • However, the law still requires a sacrifice on the part of everyone taking the benefit because it doesn't actually provide a full paycheck, merely 55 percent of an employee's weekly salary.

By 2018, leave benefits in California will increase to 60 percent of an employee's salary.  The benefits will increase 70 percent for low-wage workers. State lawmakers continue working to put more job protections in place for anyone who chooses to take their leave.

FMLA and CFRA: Laws for Family and Medical Leave

Requests regarding a leave of absence have ranked among the most frequent challenges encountered by an HR administrator. The national Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) as well as the California Family Rights Act (CFRA) are applicable to any employers with more than 50 employees. They contain many overlapping and even conflicting employee rights obligations along with employer obligations related to California family leave.

The CFRA and FMLA both require all covered employers to provide their employees with time off to care for sick family members, address personal illnesses, and to allow them time to bond with a new child. Issues with these are some of the most litigated out of all employment law cases. They often result in large liabilities.

These family and medical leave laws provide eligible employees with leave equal to a maximum of 12 weeks per year for:

  • Becoming bonded to a newborn, adopted child, or foster child placed into the family’s care
  • Caring for a member of the family with a major health issue
  • Health conditions suffered by the employee
  • Any qualifying exigency related to the military service of a close family member's (FMLA only)

Per the federal Family and Medical Leave Act, all eligible employees will receive up to 26 weeks in a 12-month period in order to care for an injured or sick service member (FMLA only). These laws also prohibit any retaliation or discrimination against employees for exercising their rights under FMLA or CFRA, or for giving information or testimony regarding alleged violations of state or federal medical and family leave laws.

Medical and family leave law covers all private employers with more than 50 employees on their payroll during 20 or more calendar weeks in a given year or the previous calendar year. It also gives the same coverage to all public employers with any number of employees. The term “Covered Employers Under FMLA and CFRA” can include any and all employees whether they were part time, full time, received no compensation, or any other classification.

Employee Eligibility for Leave

California Paid Family Leave applies to any employee covered by disability insurance, which is deducted from employee paychecks. The CFRA tells us that there are a few specific criteria regarding an employee for California’s family and medical leave. An employee is required to have worked for a covered employer 12 months minimum and must have worked for at least 1,250 hours in those 12 months before the start of their leave. That employee must also work at a worksite with 50 or more employees employed within 75 miles of the worksite.

Qualifying Reasons for Leave

Paid Family Leave laws allow for covered employees to take time off so they can bond with their newborn baby, foster or child and care for a parent, spouse, child, relative, or registered domestic partner with a serious illness. Employees who seek time off to care for any qualifying family member must understand there are strict requirements as to what can qualify as a "serious" illness with regards to receiving benefits. With the exception of San Francisco, paid leave will not be provided by any law for an employee’s own illness.

As you can see, paid family leave covers a wide range of topics. The greater the coverage, the better able you’ll be to serve your loved ones and children in their time of need. Do your research to understand how the rights in your state might differ, or if you live in California, understand how to maximize the benefits with your employer.

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