An Impossible Choice for Californians: Caregiving or Career

(BPT) - Working to survive is a reality for most Californians, especially those of us supporting young children or aging parents. And with that, it’s unavoidable that at some point we’ll need time off work to care for a family member in need. Yet, as evidenced by the recent COVID-19 pandemic, many Californians don’t have access to vital programs that help balance the evolving responsibilities of career and caregiving. One policy that is particularly critical — in times of crisis, and not — is Paid Family Leave.

Not only can a paid leave policy protect families who need to care for a seriously ill family member, it can give working parents the opportunity to bond with their newborn child. And researchers across the world agree: Bonding time with a parent gives a newborn baby their best chance at good health and future success. Use of Paid Family Leave is even associated with higher rates of breastfeeding and reduced rates of infant mortality.

Of 41 developed nations, the United States is the only country that doesn’t provide universal paid leave. Recognizing that parent-child bonding is a developmental imperative, other developed nations offer workers an average of six months of job-protected leave upon the birth or adoption of a new child. As first in the nation, California enacted a Paid Family Leave policy of its own in 2004. The insurance program, paid entirely by employees through their automatic payroll deductions, provides workers with 60 or 70% of their regular wages for up to six weeks.

To their surprise, many California employers — who again, do not contribute a cent to the program — have benefited greatly from Paid Family Leave. Use of the program has improved employee morale and productivity, reduced staff turnover and promoted business growth.

Unfortunately, the full potential of California’s children, employees and employers is largely untapped. Far too many families have been forced to choose between their career and caregiving. In 2017, only half of eligible mothers and one-quarter of eligible fathers took Paid Family Leave. That’s because the 15-year-old policy framework leaves an overwhelming portion of the population behind. Without explicit job protection, many workers are too afraid to use Paid Family Leave for fear of losing their job or being demoted when they return. In addition, many families would be unable to pay for basic needs with a 30 or 40% pay cut.

As the fifth largest economy in the world, California can certainly afford to better protect families and invest in the future of our children by improving Paid Family Leave. To make this urgent need a reality, a growing number of organizations have joined a statewide “Strong Leave for Strong Families” campaign. The new campaign works to mobilize Californians to ensure their voices are heard around proposals that arise during California’s budget and legislative process. The simple request of campaign members? A Paid Family Leave program that serves all Californians.