Is Paid Family Leave a "Job Killer"?

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SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- Whenever the federal government or state legislature proposes paid family leave for workers, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce immediately decries it as a "job killer."

As Ruth Milkman, a sociologist professor who helped pass paid family leave in California joked, "If you were to pass a law saying that employees should be allowed to breathe, the Chamber would denounce that as a 'job killer'."

"They are allergic to regulation," she said. "What our research has shown is that those concerns were groundless."

Indeed. According to research by the University of California in Los Angeles, City University of New York and the Center for Economic and Policy Research, California's Paid Family Leave law, which took effect for most workers in 2004 and was the first of its kind in the country, has had either a "positive effect" or "no noticeable effect" on workplace productivity, profitability and performance, turnover and morale.

In fact, small businesses were more likely than the largest corporations to describe the law in neutral or favorable terms.

"That may be more idealogical than real," Milkman said of the discrepancy last week at the California Working Families Policy Summit.

California's paid family leave allows workers of either gender to take up to six weeks off at 55 percent of their salary to care for a new child or a seriously ill relative. Contrary to the Chamber of Commerce's concerns, the program has not been "abused" and companies have had no trouble making contingency plans for absent workers, Milkman said.

"People leave their jobs for all kinds of reasons," she said. "People die, people move, or go on vacation. If your husband has a heart attack and is in the hospital, you are probably not going to work as usual."

However, not everyone is taking advantage of the law, Milkman concedes. The lowest wage workers, Latinos and immigrants were least likely than other groups to take advantage of the law because they either felt that the benefit level was too low or that their "employer would be unhappy." Unfortunately, the law does not include job protection.

"The people who need this program the most are the ones least likely to be aware of it," Milkman said. Or, least likely to use it.