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California Passes Family Leave Law - 2002-09-25

California has become the first U.S. state to require employers to pay workers for time off to care for their family. Supporters are hailing the law as a model for other states, but businesses are denouncing it as costly.

The bill will allow workers to take six weeks off work to care for a newborn baby, a newly adopted child or sick family member. Spokesman Byron Tucker of the office of California Governor Gray Davis calls it a breakthrough. "This is the first bill in the nation that's going to allow workers to meet their responsibilities to both their families and their employers," he said.

Workers will receive up to 55 percent of their wages, to a maximum of some $700 a week.

Although the bill will not go into effect until July, 2004, it comes as good news to this mother, who is taking time off to care for her two month old baby. "I think it's long overdue," she said. "I'm very happy that there's at least 50 percent compensation, but I would like to see some day for it to reach 100 percent."

The program will be financed by workers, who will pay an average of $27 a year into a special fund, which will then provide the payments.

But small business owners, who often work on small profit margins, say the program will be a hardship. Federal law allows up to 12 weeks of unpaid family leave time, but businesses with fewer than 50 workers are exempted from the law. All businesses are included in the California bill.

Fred Main of the California Chamber of Commerce says the law will place a heavy burden on shop and restaurant operators and other small-business owners. "Their direct expenses are going to be in paying for overtime for the employees who remain on the work site or hiring and training substitute workers for a short period of time," said Fred Main.

The Chamber of Commerce official says the California law will make the state less competitive in attracting new businesses. And he points to a recent survey that shows that many U.S. business leaders consider the state a bad place to do business.

Not true, says Governor Davis' spokesman Byron Tucker, who says California is an economic powerhouse. He notes the state now has the world's 6th largest economy, and he dismisses the arguments of the governor's critics. "These are the same groups that criticize disability insurance," he said. "These are the same groups that criticize raising the minimum wage. So they're allowed to criticize, but at the end of the day, the governor made the right choice."

Fred Main of the California Chamber of Commerce says the business organization may challenge the bill in court, or work in the state legislature to have it modified, or take its case to the people through a ballot initiative.

27 other states are considering similar legislation. California is the first to pass it.

The family leave law is one of several controversial social and environmental measures passed in the state this year. In July, California had become the first U.S. state to regulate greenhouse gas emissions. In September, the governor signed a package of bills ensuring access to abortions, and another measure that allows research on stem cells. The research often involves tissue taken from aborted fetuses, and the Bush administration has placed far tighter restrictions on federally funded research.