Educating and Empowering Workers on Paid Family Leave

A good shop steward knows that after bargaining a contract, the union’s work has just begun.   Stewards and leaders must now educate and empower members in order to enforce newly-negotiated language like overtime pay, shift differentials and time off for family events. The same is true when we pass a worker-friendly law like California’s Paid Family Leave (PFL)

PFL allows California workers to get some wage replacement when taking leave to bond with a new child or to care for a sick family member.  But research shows that low income, immigrant and Latino workers are least likely to know about the law even when they need to take leave. Union and work family activists are learning that passing the law was just the first step – we still have to educate and empower the workers who need it most.

On May 5th and 6th, the Labor Project for Working Families hosted panel discussions in Los Angeles and Berkeley on California’s Paid Family Leave program. The LA event brought activists and workers from different industries together to share their experiences with the law and to discuss how to ensure that all workers can take leave when their families need them.

The events focused on the findings in Leaves that Pay, Employer and Worker Experiences with Paid Family Leave in California –a study of California’s Paid Family Leave law after the first five years. Study authors, Ruth Milkman, Ph.D and Eileen Appelbaum, Ph.D presented the results: The good news is that over one million families benefitted, the law helps new mothers establish breastfeeding, and the number of men taking leave for bonding steadily increased. But the bad news is that awareness is unequal and many low income workers may fear that by taking leave they will jeopardize their jobs.

Mariana Huerta from Restaurant Opportunities Center LA (ROC LA) spoke at the LA event about leave policies and the restaurant industry.   A large percentage of restaurant workers in Los Angeles are low wage workers who are also new immigrants. She said that many restaurant workers are not aware of paid family leave. They often don’t work enough hours to qualify for job-protected leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). 

Ellen West, Communications Workers of America (CWA) Area Director of District 9 in Southern California spoke about workers’ family leave rights and the importance of unions and enforcement agencies. Earlier this year, Verizon agreed to pay a settlement of over $6 million to CWA members for after being investigated for violating family leave laws. This was the largest settlement in the history of the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH). An investigation produced allegations that Verizon failed to provide a timely response to leave requests, wrongfully denied leave and fired workers on protected leave.  The union collaborated with DFEH to make sure members benefit from the settlement.

At both events, activists and academics talked about what needs to be done to educate and empower more workers to take leave when they need it. Milkman and Appelbaum make the following policy recommendations: 

  • Expand outreach and education focusing on low income, Latino and immigrant workers
  • Increase the wage replacement to make family leave affordable to more workers
  • Extend job protection to all workers who take PFL (only workers covered by FMLA have job protection when they take PFL. It does not cover employees of small businesses).

Passing the Paid Family Leave law was a huge victory for California’s working families. But there is still work to be done. The California Work & Family Coalition brings unions and organizations together to make and change policies such as paid sick days and expanding family leave, and raise public awareness around paid leave.   We have learned that passing a law is not enough – we need on-going activism to ensure that everyone benefits.