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key takeaway

California’s paid family leave program excludes many workers, especially LGBTQ+ and immigrants, from taking leave to care for loved ones because the program’s definition of family is too narrow. Expanding the definition to include designated family members would allow more workers to access the program without straining the system’s finances.

All California workers should be able to care for their loved ones when they are ill without worrying about their next paycheck. However, many Californians have close relationships with extended or chosen family members who are not currently covered by the state’s paid family leave program. Although the program is funded entirely by worker contributions, some workers – especially those who are LGTBTQ+ and immigrants – are excluded from taking leave for their loved ones.

Policymakers can make the state’s paid family leave program more inclusive and accessible to all workers by expanding the definition of family to include a designated, or chosen, family member.

what is chosen family?

Chosen family refers to individuals who love and support each other like a family might, but do so by choice rather than based on biological or legal bonds.

1. California’s Current Definition of Family Excludes Millions

Approximately 10% of Californians live with someone who isn’t currently included in California’s definition of family. Workers in California can currently take paid family leave to care for a sick family member if that family member is a: grandparent, grandchild, sibling, parent-in-law, parent, child, spouse, or registered domestic partner. However, around 3.5 million Californians, or 10% of the population, live in households with someone not included in this definition, such as an unmarried partner or other relative, meaning they are unable to take paid leave to care for these individuals because of the state’s definition of family. This is especially the case for immigrants, who make up 28% of the state population and are more likely to live in multigenerational households.

Additionally, there are about 2.7 million (or 1 in 10) LGBTQ+ individuals in California, which is the most in the US. Members of the LGBTQ+ community tend to rely on chosen family, or people outside of the traditional family definition, who are not currently covered by California’s paid family leave program to care for them when they are sick. That means these individuals’ chosen family, who pay a certain percentage of their paycheck every month into the state’s paid family leave fund, are not able to care for them in their time of need.

2. There is National Precedent for Expanding the Definition of Family

Seven states have more inclusive family definitions than California. While California was the first state in the country to enact a paid family leave program in 2004, other states have since established their own programs that are more inclusive. Washington, New Jersey, Oregon, Connecticut, Colorado, Minnesota, and Maine all include people who are related to the worker by blood or affinity (chosen family) in their definition of a family member.

3. Making Paid Family Leave More Inclusive Maintains Program Stability

There is minimal impact on states’ paid family leave disbursement funds. Washington expanded their definition of a family member in 2021 to include chosen family members. In that time, only 0.22% of claims filed for paid family leave have been used for a chosen family member. Although an expanded family definition has an immense impact on the lives of those individuals who do not fit under the traditional family definition, the actual impact on a state’s paid family leave disbursement fund is very small, yet the positive effect for families is meaningful.

4. Including a Designated Family Member Does Not Strain State Funds

When Washington expanded their definition of a family member to include a chosen family member, language was included in the policy that if over 500 individuals filed claims for expanded family members, a reimbursement from the state’s General Fund would be triggered. This was to ensure that the paid family leave fund would remain solvent even with the anticipated increase in the number of claims filed. However, that number was not met in 2021 or 2022 (a total of 686 claims were filed from July 25, 2021 to March 30, 2023), so $0 have been needed to reimburse the fund from the General Fund, further suggesting that adding a chosen family member will not strain a state’s disability insurance fund.

5. Current Contribution Rates Support Expanded Definition of Family Leave

Currently, workers in California pay 1.1% of their wages to the State Disability Insurance fund to pay for the state’s paid family leave and disability insurance programs. With a very liberal estimate on the number of claims that will go up if designated family members are added, the Employment Development Department (EDD) estimates family leave expansion will have zero impact on worker payroll contribution rates for 2025 and 2026 and a 0.1 percentage point increase in 2027. Additionally, data from Washington point to expanded family member claims having no impact on payroll contribution rates in the years after expansion. While the EDD suggests that expansion may increase rates by 0.1 percentage points, the Washington example suggests that even this modest increase may be overestimated.

California workers provide 100% of the funding for the state’s disability insurance fund, which provides payments for paid family leave benefits. However, many workers are blocked from accessing paid family leave for their family because they do not fit the strict definition of family used in the state — this is especially true for LGBTQ+ Californians and immigrant communities. California can ensure equitable access to paid family leave and catch up to other states’ more inclusive policies by expanding their family definition to include a designated chosen family member.

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