New National Legislation Takes Important Lessons From California's Paid Family Leave

Sometimes, family must come first. When a parent or child falls ill requiring round-the-clock care, when an expectant mother is put on bed-rest months before delivery, or, when a child comes into the family, we know that there is no place else we need to be except with our family. But, for too many of us, instead of being able to focus on our family responsibilities, we have to worry about our next paycheck and whether our boss will give us the time we need.

Thankfully, people in California don't face this problem alone. In 2002, California took a historic step by passing the first paid family leave law in the nation. This law has helped 1.6 million people take time away from their jobs for up to six weeks to care for an ill family member or bond with a new child (by birth, foster, or adoption), without the threat of losing their entire income. Nearly every private-sector worker in California contributes a portion of each paycheck to the state disability system, and a small portion of those contributions fund the Paid Family Leave (PFL) program.

Last week, Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) and Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) introduced legislation that follows in California's footsteps. The FAMILY Act would give workers in every state what Californians already have: The right to be with their families when it really matters.

We have been watching California's paid family leave program and considering how its lessons can be applied nationally. What we've learned is that there are good economic reasons to pass a national paid family leave insurance law. It's good for families and can even be good for business.

First of all, paid leave keeps women at work. Researchers have found that if new mothers have paid leave, they go back to work faster and are less likely to drop out of the labor force. Having paid leave means that they can prioritize family when they need to, but they can also have a job to go back to. Having leave insurance reduces the chance that a woman will quit her job when she becomes pregnant or when she needs to care for a family member.

Women are an important asset for our economy and our families. Women now make up nearly half the workforce. Two-thirds of U.S. families with children rely on the earnings of mothers to get by. Her paycheck makes all the difference.

When paid family leave first passed in California, business leaders were worried that it would mean a hit to their bottom line. But, now that they've seen the program in action, their opinions have shifted. According to a 2011 survey, the overwhelming majority of employers reported that paid family leave had either a positive effect or no noticeable effect on business profitability, productivity, and employee morale.

In fact, many employers report that paid family leave has been good for business. California employers have found that paid leave reduces absenteeism and tardiness, and reduces turnover.

But, paid family leave isn't just about economics. The benefits to a family's health and well-being are well-documented. Studies suggest that leave nearly doubles the amount of time a mother takes to breastfeed, thereby increasing the immune protection and long-term health of her child. Parental leave policies are associated with reduced rates of infant deaths and behavioral issues, as well as reduced rates of postpartum depression.

At some point, we all need a little time to focus on what matters. With an aging population, many of us care for our children while also caring for our parents. For too many around the country, however, the time away from work is simply unaffordable. Almost half of workers who need to take leave cannot afford to do so, and only eleven percent of workers in the United States have access to paid leave -- many of whom live right here in California.

California has led the way on an issue that touches every one of us. We know from this experience that giving families the time to care is not only the right thing to do, it's the right thing to do for our economy.

Ann O'Leary is Vice President at Next Generation and serves as Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress. Heather Boushey is Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress.