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California's pioneering paid family-leave law may expand to help more low-income workers

Nearly 15 years ago, California became the first state in the nation to guarantee workers paid time off to care for a new child or an ailing family member.

Now, as both Democratic presidential candidates tout their paid family-leave policies — and as Hillary Clinton gives shout-outs to California's law — a measure to make the state program more lucrative for workers is on the fast track in the Legislature.

In an attempt to entice more low-wage workers to take advantage of the program, people earning around minimum wage would be paid 70% of their salaries under the proposal by Assemblyman Jimmy Gomez (D-Echo Park), a boost from the current rate of 55%.

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Those with higher salaries would be eligible for 60% of their pay while on leave.

"One of the biggest barriers to people actually using paid family leave was low-wage replacement," said Gomez, adding that a higher pay rate would make the program "more useful for low-income workers."

Gomez's original proposal, which would have increased both the paid time workers could take off and the amount of money they could recoup, easily cleared both houses last year. But the assemblyman held his measure back before it cleared its final legislative hurdle.

"We couldn't get a firm signal from the governor's office," Gomez said. "We were hesitant to put the bill on his desk right away."

Instead, Gomez said, he held several meetings with Gov. Jerry Brown's office and revamped the proposal to address Brown's concerns. Gomez dropped a provision to extend the amount of time a person could take paid leave; the new version would keep the existing maximum of six weeks.

The amended measure also would increase payments for those receiving state disability insurance. That program, as well as paid family leave, is funded by employee payroll deductions.

With those changes, Gomez said, he believed the bill would "garner a signature from the governor."

Deborah Hoffman, a spokeswoman for Brown, said his office typically does not comment on pending legislation, adding that the governor would "closely consider any bill that reaches his desk." 

The Senate could hear the new amendments as early as Thursday. Gomez said he hopes to get the bill on Brown's desk by early March.

Paid family leave has received frequent mention on the presidential trail. Both Clinton and her Democratic rival, Bernie Sanders, have called for 12 weeks of paid leave. Federal law currently guarantees three months of unpaid leave; California is one of three states that ensure paid time off.

California's original law, Gomez said, proved that the state could provide paid leave without damaging its economy. He said he hoped his measure would help feed into the issue's national momentum.

"It shows California did it once, and we'll do it again," he said. "Now it's everybody else's turn to step up."

Follow @melmason for more on California government and politics.

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