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Californians not using paid family leave program

September 2, 2008 | 11:18 am

Reiner300 In 2004, California became the first state in the nation to enact a law providing paid time off for employees who need to care for a newborn baby or a sick loved one. Funded by all workers through the State Disability Insurance program, the law allows employees to collect up to 55% of their salary, up to a limit, per week.

It's a terrific law for families -- if only people knew about it. A study published today in the Journal of the American Medical Assn. examined California parents of children with special health needs -- a group that is more likely to use such a benefit. The study found that only 5% of those surveyed had used the program. Only 18% had even heard of the program. The law has made no difference in the percentage of parents taking leave from their jobs to care for ill children or loved ones when compared to similar parents who live in a state (Illinois) without such a law. Nor is it linked with any increase in the amount of leave parents are taking.

"We thought these parents would learn about the law and would use it to spend more time with their seriously ill children," said Dr. Mark Schuster, a professor of pediatrics at Harvard who authored the study for the RAND Corp. "We were surprised that the vast majority of these parents didn't even know about the program. Parents seem to have no idea that they are paying for this benefit. They're leaving money on the table at a time when they could really use it to be with their sick kids."

Some workers might feel that even 55% of their salary isn't enough to cover them while they take some time away from work, said Dr. Paul Chung, a RAND researcher and assistant professor of pediatrics at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA. Other workers might feel that if they take the leave they will lose their jobs.

Ultimately, however, the biggest problem is letting California workers know that this benefit is available to them, says Dr. John M. Neff, of Children's Hospital and Regional Medical Center in Seattle. In an editorial accompanying the study, Neff noted that failure to use the program could cost the state, employers and workers more money in the long run if employees end up quitting their jobs to care for ill family members and lose their employer-based health insurance.

Go to the California Paid Family Leave Law website to learn how the program works.

-- Shari Roan

Photo: Actor-director Rob Reiner was a leading advocate for the Paid Family Leave Law, which passed in 2004. Credit: Robert Durell/Los Angeles Times.