A working mother, courtesy of Labor Project

(WOMENSENEWS)–Flex time–flexible work schedules to help employees manage pressing family and work responsibilities–is sought by far more women than men. And this election cycle it is shaping into a presidential campaign issue.

President George W. Bush last Thursday called on Congress to pass a bill that would allow workers to accumulate hours for time off insteadof being paid overtime. Democratic nominee Sen. John Kerry immediately took up the issue and retorted that a flex-time law should not deny workers the overtime pay on which many rely.

Meanwhile, California has moved ahead of the whole campaign debate and put a law on the matter into place. Enacted into legislation in 2002, the program went into effect in July making California the first state in the nation to offer a paid family-leave benefit.

The program, which offers paid leave to workers, is administered by the state but funded entirely by workers’ own payroll contributions. It is expected to be closely watched by other states to see how it works out. Hawaii, New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Maryland and Maine are considering replicating or closely following the California model.

A Nebraska bill would allow workers to deposit money into an account that would provide wages for medical or family leave. And Minnesota is looking at providing paid leave for newborn or adopted child care.

Friendlier to Workers

The California program is considered much more worker-friendly than the federal Family and Medical Leave Act, which provides up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave. Research has shown that more than 3-in-4 workers nationwide who needed the leave couldn’t afford to take it.

The new California program, by contrast, allows most workers in the state to take up to six weeks off a year and receive 55 percent of their salary while they take time off. The law doesn’t provide job protection, however, so workers need to negotiate the details with their employers.

Benefits are based on the worker’s past quarterly earnings and range from $50 a week to $728 a week, with the average weekly benefit this year estimated at $342. The six weeks can be taken at once, or in small increments.

Applications have been trailing expectations. While 25,000 were expected to apply each month, only 17,400 have applied so far.

Suzanne Schroeder, spokesperson for the Employee Development Department, said she would have expected a surge of applications as soon as the program kicked in July 1 because parents can only take the paid leave within a year of the birth or adoption. So, parents of a child born last fall would only have a few months left to take advantage of the benefit.

At the same time, Schroeder said, the program is simply taking time to get off the ground.

“We really think it’s going to build,” said Netsy Firestein, director of the Labor Project for Working Families at the University of California at Berkeley. It took the federal unpaid leave program about three years to achieve widespread awareness, Firestein said.

Newborns or Adoptions

The vast majority of those who have applied so far–70 percent–are women requesting time off to bond with a newborn or an adopted or foster child.

One of them is Carla Dartis-Carter of Oakland, who works at a nonprofit foundation. She applied for the paid leave to care for her newly adopted son. She said the program is a great idea because workers are bankrolling it. “The employee, employer and state are all doing this as a partnership,” she said.

The program is funded entirely through a worker payroll contribution and is administered as part of the State Disability Insurance through the state’s Employment Development Department, which also administers unemployment benefits. Businesses don’t pay anything.

The 13 million workers covered under state disability began paying into the fund in January. The deduction on each paycheck is negligible for most workers, their disability insurance rate increased by .08 percent this year. This means that each worker will pay a maximum of $55.06 this year.

The Employment Development Department expects to pay out $400 million to 300,000 participants this year.

No Job Protection

The program does have its drawbacks. Unlike the unpaid federal leave law or California’s paid 12-week maternity leave, there’s no job protection or return rights, unless the leave is used as an extension for maternity leave. Employers can require workers to take up to two weeks of vacation before receiving benefits and workers applying for time off to care for an ill relative or domestic partner must have a physician sign a document that the worker is needed as a caretaker.

But even with the law’s failure to provide job protection, research supports Suzanne Schroeder’s hunch that fewer workers may be applying for the leave than expected simply because they don’t know about it.

A University of California, Los Angeles study done in the fall of 2003 found that though 85 percent of Californians surveyed liked the idea of paid family or medical leave, only 22 percent said they were aware of the new law. By contrast, 60 percent said they were aware of the federal unpaid leave law, enacted in 1993.

The survey also found that more than 44 percent of employed respondents had taken a family or medical leave at some point over the past five years and 65 percent said they were either very likely or somewhat likely to need such a leave in the next five years. More women than men said they would need the leave.

Modern Workplace Realities

Firestein said paid family leave is necessary to reflect the modern workplace and the modern working woman’s life. “Generally, our sense is that workers are having to take time off anyway,” Firestein said. “Women are in the workplace and they still have other obligations.”

According to a 2003 Kaiser Family Foundation study on family health, two-thirds of low-income mothers and more than one-third of moderate and upper income mothers lose pay when they miss work because of a sick child. And nearly 40 percent of working Americans provide unpaid assistance to their elderly parents, according to the UCLA study.

Certainly, some California workers aren’t eligible for the leave because they don’t pay into state disability. Dartis-Carter’s husband is a freelance musician, for instance, so he is ineligible for the paid leave.

Ironically, the people who need paid family leave most may be the least likely to know about it, according to UCLA researchers. Less educated and low-income respondents were less aware of the new law than those with at least some post-secondary education or higher incomes and women were somewhat less likely to have heard of it than men, according to the study.

In that light, the state has launched a $1 million ad campaign, including bus ads, to educate people about the new program. That campaign will run until the end of November. The state is also distributing information to health care providers and social service agencies. Employers are required to tell new employees about the law.

“We think a lot of people won’t pay much attention to it until they need it,” Schroeder said. “If you suddenly have a parent or child that needs help, then you pay attention.”

Firestein said flexible work schedules and paid leave are here to stay. “It’s not like these family problems appear out of nowhere,” she said. “Workplaces have to reflect the lives we live.”

Rebecca Vesely is a health writer in the San Francisco Bay Area.

For more information:

California’s Paid Family Leave:

The Labor Project for Working Families–
California Paid Family Leave:

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