Will California Employees Get More Paid Time Off?

Governor wants to expand the state’s paid-family-leave program

By Toni Vranjes May 31, 2019
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​California Gov. Gavin Newsom wants to expand the state's paid-family-leave program, which offers partial wage replacement for employees who need to care for a new child or sick relative.

Under a revised budget plan, workers could receive up to eight weeks of benefits. This would be an increase from the current level of six weeks per person.

While some experts predict that expanded leave would create greater logistical difficulties for businesses, others say the proposal would help businesses retain employees.

Employee-Funded Program

In 2004, California became the first state to launch a paid-family-leave program. Under the program, employees who take family leave receive 60 percent to 70 percent of their salary through the state disability-insurance program.

"It's entirely employee-funded," explained Jenna Gerry, senior staff attorney for Legal Aid at Work in San Francisco. The funding source is an employee payroll tax.

To cover the cost of extending paid-leave benefits to eight weeks, the state would lower the amount of reserve funds the program requires.

Employers and workers should note that although the program compensates eligible workers who take time off, other laws actually govern the right to take job-protected leave.

Newsom has also convened a statewide task force to determine how California can improve its paid-family-leave program. He has highlighted the importance of family caregiving, according to Sarah Fleisch Fink, general counsel and director of workplace policy at the National Partnership for Women & Families, based in Washington, D.C.

"It's encouraging to see the governor recognize this need," Fink said.

[SHRM members-only toolkit: Managing Family and Medical Leave]

Retaining Talented Employees

Paid-leave programs may help employers keep talented employees and lower turnover costs, Fink said.

Many larger companies—Google and Netflix, for example—already have paid-leave policies that are more generous than California law requires.

"It is something that companies are using already as a recruiting tool," said Stefan Black, an employment attorney with FordHarrison in Los Angeles.

But small employers often find it difficult to provide paid family and medical leave on their own and therefore need help from a state program, Fink said. If the program provides an extra two weeks of paid leave to workers, it could help small businesses compete for talent.

Logistical Issues

Many employers want to support workers who need to take leave, according to Black. However, he noted, logistical difficulties can make maintaining operations while the employee is out hard for employers—especially if there is no readily available replacement for the worker. Extending leave time could make the struggle even more difficult.

"Any time you have employees who are absent from work, either the work isn't getting done, or it has to be done by other people," said Mark Payne, an attorney with Troutman Sanders in Irvine. Smaller businesses often have the most difficulty accommodating these absences, he added.

Newsom's proposal would make it more likely that employees would take two additional weeks of leave.

Myriad Leave Laws

California employers must navigate a number of leave laws, including:

  • The federal Family and Medical Leave Act.
  • The California Family Rights Act.
  • The California New Parent Leave Act.
  • The Pregnancy Disability Leave Law
  • Disability-accommodation laws.
  • Workers' compensation laws.
  • Paid-sick-leave laws.

Local laws may also come into play. For instance, San Francisco has its own local paid-parental-leave ordinance, requiring companies to give supplemental pay to parents who are bonding with a newborn or newly adopted child and also receive state benefits.

"For most employers, it's difficult to understand and comply with this patchwork of medical and family leave-of-absence laws," Payne observed.

Black is hoping for a balanced approach, weighing the family needs of employees with the operational needs of businesses.

The governor's proposal highlights the need for employers to create detailed, written policies on paid family leave, said Natalie Fujikawa, an attorney with Fisher Phillips in Sacramento.

To the extent permissible under state law and under certain circumstances, employers may require advance notice that an employee plans to go on leave, she explained. If employers create good policies and procedures, workers will be well-informed, and companies might be able to better prepare for an employee's time away from work.

Toni Vranjes is a freelance business writer in San Pedro, Calif.

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