Participation in California's Paid Family Leave Program is Growing, But Who's Benefiting?

Blake Richardson with his sons Elias Andrew Richardson, Aiden Pax Richardson and his wife Desiree D’Ambrosio. Richardson took paid family leave after the births of his sons. But he couldn't afford to take the full six weeks he was entitled to. (Courtesy Blake Richardson)

Unlike workers in a lot of other states, many Californians have access to a state-run paid family leave program. Participation in the program is growing. But some lawmakers and others are concerned about who’s benefiting the most from paid leave -- and who can’t afford to.

Santa Rosa union pipe-fitter apprentice Blake Richardson was able  to take a bit of paid leave after both of his sons were born. But it didn't work out quite the way he planned.

“With the first one, I remember applying for it, and I think we didn't really see a payment from it until about two and a half, three weeks in," he said.

When the payment arrived, Richardson soon realized it was too small to support his family and he quickly returned to work. His problem was common. In California paid leave is funded through a one percent tax on wages. It covers between 60 and 70 percent of salary. UC Berkeley Education and Public Policy Professor Bruce Fuller said that means people who make more, benefit more.

"It's primarily upper middle class dads that are showing the steepest gain and interest in the program," he said.


Fuller recently co-wrote a report on the state's paid leave program. The way the tax is structured, wages are only taxed up to about $118,000 a year. That means high wage earners end up effectively paying a lower tax rate while getting a bigger payout.

Governor Gavin Newsom’s Chief of Staff Ann O’Leary has researched paid leave programs and says they need to be more fair to people who don’t make as much.

“We literally have made no progress for low wage workers in terms of paid family leave and paid parental leave," she said. "Too many women have been left out and low wage men as well.”

Newsom’s administration has proposed eventually expanding paid leave to six months per new baby. It will also evaluate whether recent increases in how much workers receive on leave have helped low-income families use the program.

In that same vein, Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez (D-San Diego) is authoring a bill, AB 196, that would provide full wage replacement for eligible workers.

"We pass all these laws on accommodations for breastfeeding and child care," she said. "But we know the best thing for a child and that mother is to stay home with the baby."

The cost of Gonzalez's bill is not yet know. Increases in the wage replacement could be paid for in a variety of ways, including lowering the reserve requirement for the Disability Insurance Fund which currently contains more than $3 billion.

Another measure from Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson (D-Santa Barbara), SB 135, would expand the number of companies required to allow unpaid, job-protected leave.