New book — “Unfinished Business” by Eileen Appelbaum and Ruth Milkman

AppelbaumUnfinished Business: Paid Family Leave in California and the Future of U.S. Work-Family Policy by Eileen Appelbaum and Ruth Milkman (Cornell, 2014).

This book analyzes the history of California’s decade-old paid family leave program, the first of its kind in the United States, which began operating in 2004.  Based on original fieldwork and surveys of employers, workers, and the larger California adult population, it analyzes the impact of paid family leave on employers and workers in the most populous state in the U.S., and explores the implications for crafting future work-family policy for other states and for the nation as a whole.

The book makes three key arguments.  The first concerns the politics of paid leave. In contrast to most government-sponsored social programs, paid family leave (and work-family policy more generally) is a crossover issue politically.  Conservatives see family leave as an expression of “family values,” whereas for progressives it is a much-needed element of the safety net for working families.  As a result it has strong support across the political spectrum.  Business – especially as represented by the Chamber of Commerce and other lobbying groups – routinely opposes any and all legislative initiatives in this area.  Yet because the broader population is highly supportive of paid leave, the business opposition can be overcome by means of coalition organizing.  Unfinished Business shows how this was done in the case of the passage of California’s landmark 2002 law.

The second argument is that (contrary to the claims of business lobbyists), paid family leave and other programs like it do not impose any major burdens on employers.  In California, this book shows, employers themselves concluded that the impact of the new state program on their productivity, profitability and performance was minimal and often positive. Paid leave often reduced turnover and improved workers’ morale, at little or no cost to employers.  Moreover, the tax supporting the California program is paid entirely by workers.  Many of the state’s employers have reaped cost savings as a result of the program’s creation, because they can now coordinate their own wage replacement benefits with those now offered by the state.

The book’s third argument is more disturbing. While workers who use California’s paid leave program and their family members have benefitted greatly from it, and although the program is well-managed and easy to access, awareness of its existence remains limited. Moreover, those workers who are in most need of the program’s benefits – low wage workers, young workers, immigrants and disadvantaged minorities – all of whom have little or no access to employer-provided wage replacement when they need to take time off to care for a new baby or a seriously ill relative – are least likely to know about it.   As a result, the longstanding pattern of inequality in access to paid leave has remained largely intact.

New Jersey and Rhode Island have created similar paid family leave programs, and a campaign for one in New York state is currently underway.  As well, there is a proposed federal law, the FAMILY Act, under consideration at the national level.  California’s experience with paid leave, analyzed in detail in this book, offers valuable lessons for these ongoing struggle to bring the United States into alignment with other wealthy nations, the vast majority of which have had paid family leave for many decades.

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