How California's 'Paid Family Leave' Law Buys Time For New Parents : Shots - Health News The state's 2002 law offers six weeks' leave at a little over half-pay to eligible workers after the birth of a child. Ninety percent of businesses say the law's had a "neutral or positive" impact.
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How California's 'Paid Family Leave' Law Buys Time For New Parents

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How California's 'Paid Family Leave' Law Buys Time For New Parents

How California's 'Paid Family Leave' Law Buys Time For New Parents

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KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

Both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton have proposed national paid-leave programs for working parents, and California is a case study in how that could work. In 2002, California became the first state to pass a paid family leave law. New moms and dads here get six weeks leave at about half their pay after the birth of a baby. It's paid for by California workers who have a small deduction - about 1 percent - taken out of their weekly checks. As part of our series Stretched, NPR's Patti Neighmond has this story on how it's working out.

PATTI NEIGHMOND, BYLINE: Iris and Eli Fugate say the paid leave gave them precious time with their new son, Jack.

IRIS FUGATE: We both had time to get to know him together. I think that was really, really meaningful. I don't know. I can't imagine having gone any other way.

ELI FUGATE: It was amazing. It was really important and especially after being home during that first week or two, especially.

NEIGHMOND: Iris took the full six weeks of leave after Jack was born. Eli took three weeks and plans to spread the rest out over the next few months. Today Jack's 5 months old.

(BABY VOCALIZING)

I FUGATE: (Laughter).

E FUGATE: Hey, are you OK?

I FUGATE: You have a lot to say, don't you?

NEIGHMOND: Jack's sort of experimenting with his new-found vocal range, trying to see how loud or how low he can go. And both parents clearly relish all those special moments they share during the first weeks of Jack's life.

E FUGATE: In a bunch of the classes we took, they talk about tummy time and sort of how it's - it exercises their legs and arm muscles. And so I just did a lot of tummy time with him through the first two weeks. And one day, he just...

I FUGATE: Decided he wanted to do it.

E FUGATE: ...Turned over.

(LAUGHTER)

NEIGHMOND: Businesses initially opposed the law, but a few years in, 90 percent of employers surveyed reported a neutral or even positive impact.

Another welcome change, there's been a steady increase in the number of new dads like Eli taking paternity leave. And, since the law began, the length of time new mothers like Iris breastfeed has doubled.

I FUGATE: There's such a wonderful bonding that happens with breastfeeding that if I'd had to stop that so early and just be pumping - I mean, it makes me sad just to think about, you know, losing out on that experience.

NEIGHMOND: But here's the concern, the leave law doesn't provide a full paycheck. It pays 55 percent of an employee's salary. For the Fugates, Eli's a manager for a grocery chain and Iris is a lawyer, it was financially difficult but manageable. That's not the case for everyone.

LEO: Da-da (ph).

LASHA GABRICHI: Da-da (ph).

LEO: Da-da-da (ph).

NEIGHMOND: Leo just celebrated his first birthday. He's very busy trying to walk, climb, play with toys and his cat. Mom Kitty Jensen says he's kind of a bruiser.

KITTY JENSEN: He knocked half his front tooth out. He has scrapped knees. It's because he's totally fearless and he just, like, goes. But he doesn't really get too upset if he gets hurt. He just keeps going.

NEIGHMOND: Jensen and her husband, Lasha, live in North Hollywood. She works as a personal assistant to a clothing designer. When Leo was born, her husband was out of work, which meant the new family was living on half of one moderate salary.

JENSEN: The amount of money - it's like, you got to be kidding me - half a week's pay? If you're not in the upper-middle class, I don't know how people survive on it. We certainly didn't.

NEIGHMOND: There was rent, utilities, telephone, food, health insurance, car insurance, and all the costs of having a baby from medical bills to diapers. Kitty turned to her parents.

JENSEN: They're not well-off. They're not, you know, wealthy, but they helped as much as they could. And I sold things...

NEIGHMOND: Lots of things on Craigslist.

JENSEN: ...Furniture. I sold art, you know, vintage art pieces and chairs. And I just sold anything I possibly could all year.

NEIGHMOND: Despite the extreme financial strain, Jensen says she's grateful for the time she had. But many workers who are eligible for family leave don't take it because they have no financial cushion at all.

Sociologist Ruth Milkman surveyed Californians five years after the launch of the law. One-third of those who knew about it said they couldn't afford to take it. And more than half didn't even know the law existed.

RUTH MILKMAN: And the people who need it most - immigrants, young workers, poor people, low-wage workers - are the least likely to know about it.

NEIGHMOND: Service industry workers are typical of those not in the know. Claudia Chi-Ku worked as a cashier at a large carwash chain when she got pregnant.

CLAUDIA CHI-KU: At that time, to be honest, I had no idea - none.

NEIGHMOND: She says the paid family leave even at half her salary would've been a godsend.

CHI-KU: I would've used that money that I really needed at that time - especially at that time. I think it was sad for me.

NEIGHMOND: Today, Chi-Ku works with advocacy groups to help other low-wage workers understand their rights under the leave law. And changes are on the way. In 2018, the amount of money new moms and dads get will increase to 70 percent for low-wage workers like Chi-ku. Patti Neighmond, NPR News.

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