As a new bill calls for the expansion of California's Paid Family Leave program, all eyes are on Gov. Gavin Newsom, who has yet to sign it. (Brontë Wittpenn/The San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images)
Twenty years ago, California became the first state in the nation to enact partial wage replacement benefits that have since enabled millions of workers to take time off to bond with a new child or care for a seriously ill relative.
California’s Paid Family Leave was signed into law on Sept. 23, 2002, by then Gov. Gray Davis. With over $10 billion paid out to claimants in over 3.6 million claims filed as of 2021, the program has been linked to enormous gains in the well-being of families, such as reduced infant mortality and better maternal physical and mental health.
“Our nation-leading paid leave program is family- and small-business friendly, and it creates an equitable and inclusive model, we believe, for the rest of the country,” said Gov. Gavin Newsom, speaking at an event Thursday marking the program’s anniversary.
This comes as family advocates and working people are calling on the governor to sign a bill that would bolster access to paid caregiving time for families, especially lower-income residents.
Approved by lawmakers last month, SB 951would boost the wage replacement rate to 90% for people earning less than $57,000 a year, and 70% for all other eligible workers, starting on Jan. 1, 2025.
Supporters of the bill, which lacked any official opposition from the public, argue the rate increases are needed because often workers can’t afford to fully use the benefits they’ve paid for if they only receive slightly more than half their wages.
That pay cut was too drastic for Rosalba Contreras, who made $15 an hour when she had her second baby in late 2017. The then-administrative assistant said she simply couldn’t afford rent and bills under paid leave, and had to return to the office after bonding with her newborn at home for just two weeks.
Looking back at what she describes as a “heartbreaking” experience, she believes more time to breastfeed and fully care for her baby, who was born prematurely, would have prevented speech and other developmental delays her now 5-year-old endures.
“I really, really wish I could have stayed at home with her to make sure that she was healthy before I returned back to work,” said Contreras, 37, who lives in San Bernardino County. “Because she wasn’t healthy. She wasn’t ready and I wasn’t ready. Neither of us were.”
Last year, Newsom vetoed a proposal that would have raised leave payment rates, citing “significant new costs not included” in the budget. To cover expected new costs, SB 951 would get rid of a taxable ceiling that caps contributions once a worker’s yearly income reaches the $146,000 threshold.
Newsom has one week to sign or veto the proposal. If he vetoes the bill, which includes an extension of the current wage-replacement rate, payments will drop to 55% for all workers taking family leave.
“The signing of SB 951 would be the most impactful thing the governor could do now to ensure that workers and families of all incomes can benefit from our Paid Family Leave program,” said Jenya Cassidy, who directs the California Work and Family Coalition, the leading advocate for the program’s creation and for expanding the benefits to more working Californians. “We really need him to do this if we want to realize the promise of California paid leave.”
Stay in touch. Sign up for our daily newsletter.