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The good news: Since California unions and community organizations helped pass Paid Family Leave legislation in 2002, over one million people have used the program, which provides up to six weeks of partial wage replacement for workers who take time off to bond with a new child or care for a seriously ill family member.

A newly released report, Leaves That Pay: Employer and Worker Experiences with Paid Family Leave in California (Eileen Appelbaum & Ruth Milkman, 2011) shows that 91% of those who used the benefit said that it had a positive effect on their ability to care for a new baby, foster or adopted child. California’s Paid Family Leave program has doubled the median duration of breastfeeding for all new mothers who used it. And it also benefits new fathers, as the number of men using the program to bond with new babies has steadily increased since the law was first passed.

The new report comes at a time when the national movement and demand for family leave rights is growing. The Labor Project for Working Families just collaborated with the Berkeley Center for Health, Economic & Family Security on A Guide to Implementing Paid Family Leave for other states working on similar legislation. And, the labor-led California Work and Family Coalition is bringing in new partners to build the movement to expand family leave rights in the state.

When the PFL law first passed, the Chamber of Commerce called it a ‘job killer,’ claiming that it would be disastrous for business. “The truth is, it has been a non-event for business,” says Ruth Milkman, co-author of the new report. The report reveals that early claims that PFL would impose extensive new costs on employers and involve a particularly serious burden for small businesses were unfounded. In fact, some of the employers surveyed in the report point out that PFL is a cost savings for businesses that already provide paid parental or caregiving leave.

The bad news is that public awareness of Paid Family Leave remains limited. The report shows that low-wage workers, immigrants and Latinos are the least likely to be aware of the program. Even among low-wage workers who had a life event that PFL would cover, more than half did not know about the program, let alone take advantage of it.

Unions in California and across the country have played a key role in passing laws like Paid Family Leave. In addition to pushing for more family leave rights for all workers, advocates now have to push for more public education so everyone who needs this program can benefit. And it is by continuing to organize, empower and educate each other that all workers will have the ability to be there when their family needs them.

For more information on Paid Family Leave, to get involved in the statewide coalition or to request a Family Leave Laws – Know Your Rights! Training for your union, contact the Labor Project for Working Families at 510-643-7088 or e-mail info@working-families.org

By Jenya Cassidy, Labor Project for Working Families

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