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California Fails To Extend Family Leave Rights For Parents At Small Businesses

Aiming to attract and keep top-notch talent, a growing number of companies are dangling family-friendly perks such as lengthy paid leave for new moms and dads, back-up child care and onsite infant vaccines. But the attention-grabbing headlines — such as "IBM plans to ship employees' breast milk home" — obscure the reality that for many workers, basic benefits such as guaranteed parental leave, even unpaid, are unavailable.

In California, long a trailblazer on paid leave, work-life advocates suffered a setback recently when the governor vetoed a bill that would have required small businesses to guarantee employees' jobs after they take a parental leave.

Workers at larger employers already have that protection under federal law. The Family and Medical Leave Act allows workers at companies with 50 or more employees to take up to 12 weeks off without pay following the birth or adoption of a child without jeopardizing their jobs. It also applies for care for themselves or a family member with a serious health condition.

California takes it a step further, however. It's one of just four states that replaces a portion of workers' wages while they're on unpaid family leave. New Jersey, Rhode Island and, beginning in 2018, New York, are the others. Washington state also has passed a law but never funded it.

Though other states have expressed interest in this type of coverage, "change is glacial, and most people still don't have access" to paid family leave, said Vicki Shabo, vice president at the National Partnership for Women and Families, an advocacy group based in Washington, D.C.

In California, workers at companies of all sizes who take family leave can receive up to 55 percent of their wages, going up to a maximum 70 percent in 2018, for up to six weeks to care for a newborn, newly adopted or foster child or ill family member. The leave is financed by a payroll tax on employees that was added to the state's existing temporary disability program.

But even though workers pay into the fund and are entitled to the state payments during a family leave, people who use the benefit can find themselves out of work at smaller companies. In some cases, workers reluctantly use their more limited paid vacation instead, or they may skip parental leave entirely.

When Charles and Angelique Anderson's daughter was born in July, Charles asked his company for a month off to bond with the baby. The debt collection company he works for turned down his request because, he said, it told him his office of roughly 30 workers isn't bound by the family leave law. When the baby was born, Anderson, 32, took just a week of vacation before returning to his Sacramento job.

"I was angry," said Anderson, who has worked at the company since 2007. "Now I have my first baby and they deny me leave because it would have hurt their money."

The bill vetoed by Gov. Jerry Brown on Sept. 30 would have allowed workers at small businesses with between 20 and 49 employees to take up to six weeks off after the birth or adoption of a child without losing their jobs.

In his veto message, Brown said he was worried about the effect on small businesses. The California Chamber of Commerce opposed the bill, calling it a "job killer" because it would impose another protected leave of absence on small businesses. The chamber didn't respond to a request for comment.

Small businesses, however, didn't necessarily agree with that assessment.

"Small employers need to compete for talent and they want to be able to offer their employees the whole suite of benefits," said Mark Herbert, California director of the Small Business Majority, an advocacy group.

Although the organization didn't take a position on the bill, Herbert said the financial consequences of such a law might be positive for small businesses. That's because employers don't pay workers' wages while they're on family leave.

A survey of 250 California employers in 2010 found that roughly 90 percent reported no problems with morale, productivity, profit or costs because of the family leaves. That's generally consistent with national employer surveys about family leave laws.

Nationally, just 13 percent of private sector workers have access to paid family leave, while 87 percent have access to unpaid family leave, according to the U.S. Department of Labor's annual national compensation survey of employee benefits.

Sixteen percent of workers who were eligible for leave under the federal Family and Medical Leave Act in 2012 took it, usually because of their own illness. Of those, about one in five took leave because of pregnancy or a new child, according to a report prepared by Abt Associates for the Department of Labor.

Although big-name companies offer generous paid family benefits — sometimes months of leave for both parents — many workers can't take more than a few days off, even without pay. But work-life advocates say they're encouraged by generous corporate perks.

"It's a cultural shift," said Maya Raghu, director of workplace equality at the National Women's Law Center. "Some employees don't see this as a benefit but as a necessity."

For their part, California advocates aren't giving up on small business protections. "Instead of being sad, people feel really energized," said Jenya Cassidy, director of the California Work and Family Coalition, which advocated for the bill. "We're still not done."

Kaiser Health News is an editorially independent news service that is part of the nonpartisan Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation. Michelle Andrews is on Twitter: @mandrews110.

Copyright 2016 Kaiser Health News. To see more, visit Kaiser Health News.

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