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(Photo: MomsRising just delivered 50,000 signatures and plush storks to remind members of Congress that all families need access to paid leave. The petition can be signed here.)

Ten years ago when a coalition of legislators, labor leaders and family advocates promoted and successfully passed a paid family leave law in California – the first in the nation! -- the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and other business interests opposed it. They claimed that allowing workers to take six weeks of family leave at half their pay would lead to abusing the system and killing jobs.

The opposite has been true.

Not only has the law reduced staff turnover and increased the productivity of California workers who have taken paid family leave, it has also boosted the state economy by helping keep families afloat and keeping them off public assistance, according to Ruth Milkman, professor of sociology at the City University of New York (CUNY).

“Our research has shown a positive effect or no effect on worker productivity or staff turnover,” Milkman said. “Concerns about abuse of the program have been unfounded. If anything, the downside of the law has been the lack of awareness among workers.”

Milkman and a group of experts who helped pass the law 10 years ago and a mom who benefited from it were on hand to reflect on this ground-breaking piece of legislation at a press briefing hosted by New America Media. California’s paid family leave law allows workers who have paid into the state’s disability coffers to take six weeks at 55% of their pay. Any worker who has paid into disability, regardless of immigration status or where they work, is allowed to partake in the program to care for a child, spouse, parent or registered domestic partner.

In the last 10 years, the law has helped California families in the following ways:

• Studies have shown that paid family leave keeps families with newborn babies out of bankruptcy and poverty.

• Women experience increased wages by returning to their jobs and are less likely to rely on public assistance nine to 12 months after childbirth.

• This program is entirely funded by worker contributions. Such policies help keep people on the job, boost their incomes, which in turn, helps businesses.

• Immediately saves families on childcare costs by having parents stay and bond with their babies.

Unfortunately, studies also show that only 43% of Californians know that this program exists. Californians who have the most to gain from the law – immigrants, Latinos and other underserved minority populations and low-wage workers – are even less likely to know about the law.

“The most common way people learn about it is through their employers,” Milkman said. “The employers who let their employees know about it know about the cost-savings…But again, these workers are disproportionately well-off.”

Since California passed its paid family leave law in July 2002, New Jersey has followed suit. That state, too, has found benefits in the way of family economic security, less dependence on public assistance and a boost to business.

Nationally, the United States joins Swaziland and Papua New Guinea in offering families no paid family leave. Australia passed its paid family leave law last year, and unlike families in California, pretty much 100% of mothers know about it because they are told at the hospital.

MomsRising is currently supporting a similar effort at the federal level and just delivered 50,000 signatures in support of paid family leave last week. Folks who want to sign the petition can do so here.

“For the rest of the world, people have had paid family leave for decades,” Milkman said. “(California’s law) is nothing by international standards, but compared to what workers got before, which was nothing, it’s a big deal.”

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