Californians: Is Paid Leave an Option for You?

California is one of the few states to offer paid leave to take care of a sick family member. Find out if you're eligible and if paid leave is a good fit for you.

California made history in July 2004 as the first state to create a comprehensive paid leave program. Employees can collect up to 55 percent of their salary per month while caring for their loved ones.

Before the law, many low-wage workers had limited access to benefits such as sick leave and vacation. While the federal Family Medical Leave Act grants 12 weeks of unpaid family leave to eligible employees at large companies, many working families cannot afford to take the time off work without pay.

California's paid leave benefits are entirely employee-funded through the State Disability Insurance (SDI) program.

While recognition of the need for such a program is high, two years after it began roughly 70 percent were unaware that most workers are entitled to take a leave if needed.

According to the California Employment Development Department, in the program's first year of implementation, out of 13 million eligible workers, 176,085 took paid leave from their jobs. While the majority took time off work to bond with a newborn, adopted, or foster child, approximately 12 percent took advantage of the program to care for a seriously ill family member. The average weekly benefit was $409 (ranging from $50 to a maximum of $840). The average duration of leave was just under five weeks.

The paid family leave law does not require an employee to work a minimum number of hours or days before becoming eligible for paid family leave benefits. However, only workers who pay into the SDI system are eligible for paid leave. But this includes almost all private sector employees and some public sector employees.

According to Kathleen Kelly, executive director of Family Caregiver Alliance, "As the wave of Baby Boomers rapidly moves into the position of either needing care or providing it to a frail or elderly parent, as hospital stays are shortened and families are called upon to provide intensive healthcare to loved ones, as women -- the traditional care givers -- maintain positions in the workplace and two-income families find it difficult to meet everyday financial obligations, California's Paid Family Leave Law will become more and more important to the state's workers."

Caveats

Although the California law is an important step, the law is limited in its ability to assist with shorter-term absences caregiving that families often require, such as to accompany a loved one to medical appointments, to locate substitute help when paid aides do not show up for work, to calm an agitated Alzheimer's sufferer, to assist someone who has fallen, to prepare meals or ensure that medications are available and taken properly, etc. In these instances, other measures provided by some employers are helpful, such as flex time, or allowing employee sick leave to be used for caregiving.

It's also important to understand that paid family leave insurance is not a form of job protection. The program does not guarantee an employee the right to take leave, nor does it require an employer to hold an employee’s job open while the employee is on leave.

To learn more about the California Paid Leave Law, visit: http://www.paidfamilyleave.org or http://www.edd.ca.gov. For more about work and eldercare, see the Family Caregiver Alliance Fact Sheet at http://www.caregiver.org/caregiver/jsp/content_node.jsp?nodeid=413.