Gov. Jerry Brown on Monday signed a bill expanding California's pioneering family-leave law to help more low-income workers and provide better benefits.
"It's a real pleasure to be able to sign another bill that helps ordinary Californians, working men and women," Brown said.
The action comes 15 years after California became the first state in the nation to guarantee workers paid time off to care for a new child or ailing family member.
California's program provides workers — men or women — with 55% of their wages for up to six weeks.
The measure Brown signed into law will allow people earning close to minimum wage to be paid 70% of their salary while on leave, while workers with higher pay, up to $108,000 annually, will get 60% of their salary during leave. The change takes effect in 2018. It comes one week after California raised its minimum wage to $15 by 2022.
Brown said globalization has put pressure on wages and benefits. "California is doing more probably in the aggregate than any other state," he said. "We're trying to compensate for the gross inequality that is not an abstraction but it's bringing down the lives of a lot of people who live in California."
Brown signed the bill in a packed ceremony in his office surrounded by advocates for the poor and by Californians who will benefit. Vivian Thorp from Alameda County talked about being a single mother who is on leave to care for an ailing parent.
"Having the ability to take paid family leave is truly critical to my sole ability to assist in taking care of my mother," Thorp said as Brown looked on.
In a statement, President Obama lauded California's new law as setting a good precedent for the rest of the country.
"This is great news for California," Obama said. "Yet millions of Americans still don't have access to any form of paid leave. Congress needs to catch up to California — and to countries all over the world — by acting to guarantee paid family leave to all Americans. As long as I am president, I will continue to do everything I can to ensure that working Americans have access to this basic security."
The family leave measure was introduced by Assemblyman Jimmy Gomez (D-Echo Park) based on personal experience. As a child, he spent seven days in a hospital with pneumonia, something he said caused severe financial hardship for his family, he said.
"It is unrealistic to expect a worker who is already living paycheck to paycheck on 100 percent of their salary to use a program for 6 weeks at nearly half of their wages," Gomez in a statement.
To win the governor's approval, Gomez had to drop a provision that would have extended the paid leave beyond the current limit of six weeks. New York last week enacted a bill requiring employers to provide 12 weeks of paid time off to new parents and others with family illness.
San Francisco last week approved the best benefits in the country, mandating that businesses give new mothers and fathers six weeks of fully paid time off.
Gomez pushed the California bill this year to take advantage of the fact that Democratic presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders were both focusing on family paid leave.
The bill was supported by a broad cross-section of business and labor groups, as well as Attorney General Kamala Harris, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti and Jenya Cassidy, director of the California Work & Family Coalition.
"This is a historic step that will allow more Californians to be there when their families need them most," Cassidy said.
California's program is funded through worker contributions, and is administered by the state Employment Development Department (EDD).
The improved benefits will cost about $587 million annually by 2021, requiring the state to increase the amount workers pay into the fund.
Supporters say the insufficient benefits have hurt participation. EDD says that more than 2 million claims had been paid, although about 13.1 million Californians were covered by the program.
About 90% of claims were filed by parents to spend time with a new child, while 10% of them were for caring for a seriously ill family member.
In 2013, Brown signed a bill that extended paid family leave to workers who take time off to care for a seriously ill parent-in-law, grandparent, grandchild or sibling.