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key takeaway

California was the first state to offer paid family leave, but workers cannot apply for benefits until after they have already started their leave, causing financial hardship.

California was the first state in the country to offer paid family leave for its workers, acknowledging the importance of giving workers paid time off to care for their loved ones or bond with a new child. Since then, 12 other states and Washington, D.C. have followed California’s lead. Despite California being the first to pass paid family leave, workers in the state cannot apply for benefits until after they have already started their leave. This may put workers in a distressing financial situation while navigating care for their loved ones. By allowing workers to apply for paid family leave before their leave has begun, policymakers can better serve Californians.

How does paid family leave in California work?

Under California’s paid family leave and state disability insurance programs, workers receive partial wage replacement when they are unable to work for various reasons. Paid family leave is available to workers who are caring for a seriously ill or injured family member, bonding with a new child, or addressing a military exigency. State disability insurance is available to individuals who are unable to work due to an injury or illness. Both benefits are fully worker-funded through a payroll tax. However, a worker cannot apply for their benefits until they have first started unpaid leave and their qualifying life event has already occurred. In other words, a worker has to stop working without confirmation of if they will receive pay and benefits, and without confirmation of how much money they will get.

For example, a worker who qualifies for paid family leave because they have welcomed a new child or who qualifies for state disability insurance to recover from their own serious health condition, including pregnancy, must first take unpaid leave from their job before they can apply for paid family leave or state disability insurance. They will not know if they will get approved, they will not receive pay, and they will need to apply for benefits while at the same time welcoming their new child. This leaves workers in a precarious situation where they must go days and sometimes weeks without pay at a time when they need it most.

This is especially harmful for workers with low incomes, who are disproportionately women and people of color, who face the impossible decision of going days or weeks without pay or taking time off to care for an ill loved one or a new child. For many workers, taking time off of their job without confirmation of benefits is not an option, as workers face expenses that they cannot cover without regular income. This makes workers less likely to take leave, which can have serious consequences to their health.

What are other states doing?

Some states are leading the way in this area and have addressed this gap in policy to ensure that all workers have equal access to paid family and medical leave and no one has to face these impossible choices. Out of the 14 states and D.C. that offer paid family and medical leave, eight allow workers to apply for benefits before their qualifying event happens, meaning they are not forced to take unpaid leave without confirmation of knowing if they will receive any benefits at all. This allows workers to mitigate their risk and reduce their stress during already demanding situations.

What can state leaders do to better support workers in California?

While California was a trailblazer in 2002 when it enacted the first paid family leave law in the country, it has now fallen behind. Workers should not have to take unpaid time off when they pay into and are eligible for benefits. It is time for California to catch up and give workers the security they deserve by letting them apply early for their benefits.

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