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Making sense of California’s family leave policies


Seven o’clock is bath time for 14-month-old Ryan. His dad David Li gently washes his hair, and coos to the baby as he wiggles in the bath.

Li and his wife Emily Yip are friends of mine, and watching these two working parents struggle to stay financially afloat and spend time with their baby made me wonder how they do it all.

Li, who didn’t want to use his real name for fear of offending his former employer, was working at Google when he became a dad. The company is known for having excellent parental leave benefits, but that didn’t help Li when he wanted to be home with his baby.

“I was a contractor at Google,” he says, “so I had no paternity leave at all.”

To be included under the federal work protection laws you have to have been an employee for at least a year. Although Li had worked at Google for over two years, his contract was only for nine months at a time.

“But you know, I really wanted to stay home with my son,” Li says. “Family’s always more important to me. A job is a job.”

There still aren’t that many men who take parental leave, so if your employer doesn’t spell it out for you, there’s no clear path to follow. Luckily for Li, another new dad happened to work at the desk right next to him at Google. Li’s coworker told him about California’s Paid Family Leave program, which gives new parents up to six weeks of partial pay — as much as 55% of weekly wages — to bond with their babies. These benefits are distributed through the EDD, or Employment Development Department, and not tied to a specific employer. Workers have a right to it no matter where they work.

California’s Family Leave Act is a step ahead of the U.S. as a whole, in giving all parents the right to some time off, but it’s complicated.What we have now is a patchwork of different federal and state regulations that dictates who and how to take time off work to be home with a newborn. Combined, there are at least six different laws that new parents should know about when it comes to taking time off with their babies.

Li’s wife Emily Yip works as a lawyer at a small practice in San Francisco. She originally didn’t think she was eligible for any family leave, but decided to pursue it anyway. She asked around at work and ended up finding someone in the payroll department who could answer her questions.

“She looked through the manual that I did not have, and she said, ‘Oh yes you do get three weeks of paid leave from the firm’,” Yip explains. “So that’s something I wouldn’t have known about unless I had asked, and no one would have known to give it to me unless I had asked.”

Yip was able to cobble together 11 to 12 weeks of some paid leave. She took out sick days and vacation days on top of the three weeks her firm offered. It was only later that she realized she could have had two additional paid weeks of leave through the State Disability Insurance.

“The EDD forms are really long, single-spaced. You know, I usually am pretty good at reading forms and information and gleaning what I need from it but I just, you know, it just wasn’t said in plain English what I would be eligible for. So it was just sheer luck, by asking around, that I was able to find out,” Yip says.  

Yip practices family law; it’s her job to make sense of forms and rules like these. If they are hard for her to understand, then they are completely unintelligible for many other parents — if they even know about them.   

Parents who can’t work, and those who work too much

I meet Sandra Ruiz at BANANAS, a child care resource and referral center in North Oakland. A lot of the families who come here are low-income and struggling to make ends meet after having kids.

“I had a stable job, and then I got pregnant so I had to leave,” says Ruiz. “I was really nauseous. I couldn’t stand the smell of the food since I was working at a fast food place.”

Ruiz should not have had to quit just because of morning sickness. Most Californians pay into the State Disability Insurance, and that makes them eligible for time off for pregnancy-related issues, both before and after the birth of a baby. This is an important part of the Family Leave Act that many people still don’t know about.

Ruiz stays home with her daughter now while her boyfriend works at a glass shop. She would like to work – she has always earned her own money – but she says it’s hard to find someone she trusts, and can afford, to look after her baby.

Ruiz’s boyfriend would love to spend more time at home with the baby. He sometimes calls in sick to be able to get more time with the family, something he can only get away with once a month. Even if he was offered more days off to be with his baby, he wouldn’t be able to unless that time off is paid.

“She runs through formula, diapers, baby wipes really quick,” says Ruiz. “And she’s growing at a really quick rate so there’s all these baby clothes going out the door and there’s not much coming in.”

They’re stuck in a situation where Ruiz can’t work at all and her boyfriend works too much — and they’re still struggling financially.

“Pull yourself up by the bootstraps”

Judy Kriege is the program director at BANANAS. She says that the reality of most two-parent households is that both need to work to make ends meet. Kriege and her colleagues have noticed that very few of the families BANANAS serves are taking the family leave they’re entitled to. When they do, it’s usually because of a family medical emergency. Kriege blames this on some deeply-ingrained cultural ideals.

“There’s this ‘pull yourself up by the bootstraps’-mentality in not just our state, but in our country as a whole, so I think there are a lot of negative associations with families taking advantage of a benefit they actually have the right to,” says Kriege.

These negative associations are nothing new, according to Caroline Fredrickson, lawyer and author of the book Under the Bus– How Working Women Are Being Run Over.

“We’ve been very reluctant to look at universal solutions to what really are universal problems,” says Fredrickson. “Instead, each individual woman is supposed to struggle herself to figure out how to deal with what every other woman … and man too, is dealing with which is: how do I make sure that I have enough time for my family, and make sure that I earn enough money to support them?”

Fredrickson is not surprised to hear that so few women at BANANAS know about California’s Paid Family Leave. She thinks the state needs to do a better job at informing workers of their rights. She also thinks our cultural assumptions have to change:

“In the United States it’s not a given that workers would have what is a right in virtually every other country in the world, which is a right to some kind of paid family leave. And so I think, unfortunately, people’s basic assumption is that they shouldn’t look for it because it’s most likely not there.”

A risky proposition

Many jobs these days don’t come with the benefits or protections that most people might expect. There’s been outrage recently about Uber and Lyft drivers who are considered contractors and don’t get things like sick days.  This has been the case for a long time, according to Fredrickson, and it has particularly afflicted low-wage workers.

Fredrickson calls the U.S. a “nation of contingency,” as contingent workers get into contingent situations always on the edge of disaster.  

“In fact, having a child is one of those things that is most associated with a plunge into deep poverty,” says Fredrickson. “As it is now, it’s a risky economic proposition for people who are already struggling to be thinking about having a family.”

Having children is a risky proposition even for people up the income ladder,  like my friends Emily Yip and David Li.

Bath time’s over now for baby Ryan, and Li and his wife are putting him to bed. Li wants to make sure he can do that every night. With or without pay, staying at home with his son was something he felt like he had to do:

“Not ‘had to do’ as in some societal obligation, but just for myself. I wanted to bond with my son.”

Li’s childhood wasn’t quite like that. His parents left him in China when he was eight months old, where he was raised by his grandparents. He didn’t get to know his parents until the age of six, when they had settled in the U.S. and were able to bring him over. Li wanted a different experience with his own kids.

“It was very important that I got to take care of him while he’s young, because they’re not that age forever … so I stayed home,” says Li.

Staying home with a new baby is a rare privilege for many parents these days, but maybe it shouldn’t be. Spending time together in those first months is important for the well-being of both parents and kids. California’s Paid Family Leave policy is starting to address that, but a lot of families are still falling through the cracks.