Paid family leave is a big topic, from implications for us as a society and how we value parents to how expecting parents navigate the confusing benefits. In this podcast, Karen Stoteraux talks with Jenya Cassidy, the California Work & Family Coalition director, about the importance of paid family leave and practical ways to navigate these often confusing laws and benefits. Jenya explains that if you feel your employer is violating your rights, you can call Legal Aid at Work at 1-800-880-8047. This Legal Aid at Work is a resource where you can receive free direct legal advice. Another great resource is paidfamilyleave.org, where you can find your state’s information on your rights and how to apply. Tune in now and learn more from Jenya!
You can connect with Jenya on her:
Listen to the podcast here
Understanding Paid Family Leave With Jenya Cassidy
We are talking about paid leave. When I was doing some research to help me prepare for our discussion, I watched the trailer for Zero Weeks, a documentary on family leave, and if that doesn’t get you fired up, I don’t know what will. Here is a frightening fact. The US is the only industrialized nation in the world with no national paid leave program aside from New Guinea.
Paid leave is a big topic, from implications for us as a society and how we value parents to how expecting parents navigate the confusing benefits. That is why I’m so happy to be joined by Jenya Cassidy. She is the Director of the California Work & Family Coalition, a statewide alliance of community, organizations, unions, non-profits, and individuals dedicated to helping parents, caregivers and families thrive.
They are United in the belief that all people should have the time and resources to care for themselves and each other. She has worked on family-friendly legislation policy since the first California campaign to win paid family leave in 2002. Before leading the coalition, she was the Policy Director for the labor project for working families and a Project Manager for the next generation. She’s also worked as a union representative and a community organizer. Welcome to the show, Jenya.
Thank you. I’m so happy to be here with you, Karen.
I am too. We had got a lot to cover. Thank you for your dedication and work to help implement policies and support families. As I was reading your bio, I was thinking the world needs more people like you, so thank you for dedicating your career to that. It’s impressive. I also wanted to do a side note. I know that you know this but it’s worth mentioning. One of your employees used to work at The Family Room. It’s such a small world.
Katie Waters-Smith was our first newborn care educator when we opened and probably worked for us for about four years. When she told me her career was going in a different direction, it made so much sense for her, and she’s still a dear friend of mine. I wanted to note that we clearly both have good judgment in hiring.
She leads our legislative work and is truly amazing. Probably one of the best things about this work is that you meet incredible people who feel very dedicated to helping and supporting families. She was doing that before this job and continues to do that. She’s a pretty amazing person.
She was doing it often on a volunteer basis all the time. She was so busy. Also, a good soul and someone I need to have lunch with soon. The pandemic shined a bright light on how caregiving is not prioritized in our country and its crippling effects. I would love to spend some time talking about the big picture and implications for families regarding paid leave and then also drill down on how parents can navigate their own rights.
There’s family leave, and then there’s paid family leave. There are State Laws, Federal, and then eligibility. It can be super confusing. I remember being overwhelmed with the process when I was pregnant with the twins, especially since my doctor wanted me to stop working at 27 weeks. At the time, I was like, “There’s no way I’m stopping working at 27 weeks.” In 26 weeks and 6 days, I was like, “That man is a genius.” I was exhausted. I was worried it would affect my time with the babies after. Was I already eating into my time? It was stressful and as it is for many families. I’m wondering what your experience was like taking leave. Do you have a personal story as well?
A little bit like Katie, who works with us. I was working in a hospital as a union rep and representing a lot of parents who were about to have children and learning about what our laws were, and they weren’t adequate. I already had my first child when we worked on the first paid leave campaign, and we passed paid leave. I didn’t think I would have any more children, and then I had twins as well.
One year after, we were able to take paid leave. One of the things you mentioned is important. The fact that thinking, “If I’m on bed rest,” which I was too. My twins had Twin-to-Twin Transfusion syndrome, which is a pretty rare in-utero disease, and I did need to go on bed rest for it. I was out so early in my pregnancy.
Luckily, I knew, and many parents don’t know that in California, the birth parent has this time that protects their pregnancy and recovery from pregnancy, and then the bonding time is separate. There are so many people who don’t know that. Even a lot of HR managers get it wrong. It’s an important piece that makes our laws complicated but also gives us more rights. With the twins, I was out. My boss even helped pass paid leave. I still had to educate her on the full-time that I got. That happens. It’s important for parents to know their rights.The birth parent has this time that protects their pregnancy and recovery from pregnancy, and then the bonding time is separate. So many people don't know that. Click To Tweet
I always felt like there was some fine print I was missing or the whole process seems daunting.
That’s true. In the US, the point you make us being almost standing alone in the whole world in terms of having paid leave. It’s one of the other things too. In a state like California, where we have so many more rights because we did pass some State Laws that are good. It’s still very complicated to access, and I always say, “People in France aren’t walking around when they are pregnant saying, ‘Do I qualify for time off?’” They know because it’s universal.
I want to note that while family leave includes care-taking for an elderly parent or sick relative, we are going to be focusing on maternity and paternity leave for our discussion. That’s also important but not what we are going to focus on. Let’s get into it. I wanted to ask you about the fight for national paid leave as it has been in the news a lot. I’m wondering where it stands, and also then, as a follow-up question, what is happening in California to improve our laws?
When California passed the first Paid Leave Law in 2002, it was never the intention to do this as one state only has paid leave. We all have family all over the country, and it matters that everybody should have this right. The whole idea was it’s hard to pass a Federal Law. As we learned again, this 2021 is very hard to do. A very uphill battle. It was uphill in California too but we wanted it to be a tipping point. It was such an alien idea that people would get paid time off. Even though all these other countries have it, it was something that there was a lot of opposition, too. A lot of businesses thought, “Everybody will take it.”
I don’t think individual businesses as much as the business lobby that came out against it back then. It has been such a fight but we need it to pass at the Federal level. We are part of a network of similar coalitions around the country that all in their states and at the Federal level are fighting for a National Law. It’s very hard in California, even harder in Texas and some other states to pass legislation. They don’t even have the exact legislature as we do. There are a lot of barriers.
We fought hard, and many of our colleagues all over the country fought hard to build back better. As you probably know, paid leave was taken out to build back better, and then build back better itself has been stalled. It is a difficult time to regroup. We are not giving up on the idea of a Federal Law. One thing it did for us in California is we are so much closer to our congressional leaders here, who are proud to be from a state with paid leave, and we, as a state that has it, can bolster them in the fight, so they can be leaders in the fight to have a Federal Law. Instead of saying, “We already have it here. We need it for everybody.” I’m proud of that, and we are regrouping and figuring out how we keep pushing it forward.
It seems to be a big part of the national discussion. I feel like that hasn’t gone away. It has been one of the many things regarding how we value parents. That feels like it has good momentum, I suppose. I hope so.
It is part of the national discussion in a way that it absolutely wasn’t. That’s a victory in itself, and a way that we ultimately get it is by normalizing it. This has to be something that we have here at the Federal level.
When you were talking about normalizing things, paternity leave or bonding leave is so tied. It’s creating equity in the workplace. Anecdotally, I have noticed a lot more dads coming to Parent & Me: Series 3 because in Series 1 and 2, the moms are still on maternity leave. Series three comes, and now, more dads are taking paternity leave. Over the past years, I had distinctly noticed an increase in that. National trends or California trends, do you see fathers and partners taking more advantage of that?
One of the big pluses that we know about our paid leave in California is that it doubled the amount of time that men were taking paternity leave or the non-birth parents were taking leave, and that was so important. It establishes that bonding early. It is very normalized for a lot of younger parents. My neighbor had two kids. He took it with his first child and worked in construction. He got a lot of ribbing from some of his coworkers for taking it the first time. By the time he took it for a second child, a lot of his coworkers had taken it and said it was almost like he saw the culture shift in his own workplace. It has been a big plus of having paid leave.
That will lead to equity in the workplace, and it has such bigger implications too.
Maybe even less discrimination because we know that there’s a lot of fear of the idea that if you are the person who’s going to take a big chunk of time out when you have a child. Maybe that could lead to discrimination in the workplace because an employer might fear that you are going to be having to leave. If men or non-birth parents are doing it too, then it does equally. We need to normalize it. Even people with no children for caregiving, everybody has a time in their life when they do need to take a break from work to bond with a new child or care for a family member.
I have heard people say, “When a woman gets pregnant that it hurts her career, she takes a pay cut,” and the opposite happens for a man where he gets a bonus or a promotion. There’s this parent penalty that it feels like only goes the mother’s way. I feel like paternity leave is something that helps equalize that, hopefully, going forward.
Even when I had twins, people were saying, “You have twins now. You are not going to want to return to work because childcare would cost so much.” I’m like, “It costs the same for my husband to have childcare. What if we put our incomes together and childcare comes out of that instead of thinking only from the woman?” We do have odd ways of thinking about it. You are right. Men and non-birth parents taking the time for bonding is going to make a huge difference in the workplace for everybody.
Let’s talk about the laws here in California and the National Family Medical Leave Act to help people better understand all the rights. This is where it gets confusing for me. Can you help explain both?
Instead of having one law that does it all, we have laws that protect your job when you take that time off work. We often call that unpaid leave but it’s much more crucial than that. If you thought you were going to lose your job, taking 12, 6 or 8 weeks of paid time off, you are not going to want to do that. If then, you have no job to return to.
Having that job protection is key but it was always unpaid. Now we have paid leave, which is a separate law. It’s more like a benefit that pays an insurance benefit. Everybody pays in. When it’s your time to take it, you draw out some money when you are taking that time. As they don’t always line up, we have had this issue of people paying into something and then not having job protection because they are not with a large enough employer.
In California, we had a huge victory. We passed a law that in companies of five or more, you have job protection for twelve weeks of your bonding time and also for other things like caregiving. That’s important. We have a bill this 2022, SB 951. It’s a Durazo bill. She’s out of LA. A super great leader in the legislature. This bill would make it a lot easier for low-income workers to take paid leave.
Most people get 60% of their income but if you are making minimum wage or pretty low wages, also for California, we define that at a such higher rate because of housing. It’s so expensive here that people need their full income or can’t take it. This is what we are doing. We are working to raise that income level to 90% when you are on leave so that doesn’t mean that only higher-income workers can take paid leave. That’s the issue with our law. It’s a great law. It helps people. If only high-income workers can take it and it’s not good. It needs to be for everybody.
It’s so little that people can’t afford it.
We have people that went out on leave and went back because they couldn’t afford it. One of our members speaks a lot to the press about this in support of this bill that he went back right away. Only took a couple of weeks with his first child, and he feels like he can never get that time back. He didn’t get to bond the way he wanted to when she was a baby. That’s hard, so he has been a great spokesperson for this.
The national program, is that the job protection part or is that something else?
We have had the FMLA since 1993. Clinton still says it’s the one law he passed that he still gets compliments on or people still praise him for it to this day. It was crucial. In California and a lot of states, we have our own job protection. The California Law covers so many more people. We here in California don’t even talk about the FMLA. We talk about the California Family Rights Act because that’s the law. For FMLA, for example, 50 or more, you qualify for that job protection. California Family Rights Act, five or more. There’s no real situation where you are not covered.
You are talking about employees.You shouldn't be demoted for taking the important right to bond with a new child or care for a family member. Click To Tweet
Five or more employees. You can tell I’m used to talking about it in a certain context. If you have five or more employees, you are covered by job protection for all these reasons. Also, we have pregnancy disability leave, which you and I both took advantage of when you were on bed rest. You may need that time. It’s up to four months of job-protected leave. We have a lot more protections here. The national is still important but for California, we were able to supersede it with a much stronger law.
It’s because of people like you, so thank you. If you are an expecting parent here in California, you won’t even access the national program because what we have here is much better.
It’s this invisible protection that’s over you when you take that time. You can’t lose your job. You shouldn’t be demoted or anything for taking that. It’s very important because that’s what people fear. “What if I take this time off? What if I come back and they put me on the night shift?” It’s because of that law you are not supposed to suffer any negative consequences for taking that brief time off. It is a brief time. I’m an employer in a certain sense of the word. I lead a nonprofit. I can’t imagine not wanting somebody to be able to return to their job when they take time to bond with a new child or care for a family member but it’s important for employers to have that.
That’s funny you say that because we had to postpone this show because Jackie had her baby. Months later, now we are doing it. I remember saying to Jackie, “Whenever you want to come back, we are here because I know how important it is.” It’s ironic that we do it in our own lives, is what I’m saying. Thankfully, another reason probably why we need more women leaders is because we draw from our own experience and understands what it’s like to be in their shoes.
More women leaders and men who tap into the whole idea. I do think that not just women and men leaders but leaders who think of their role in the family as part of their leadership and that they can relate to other families. It’s so important.
I have heard parents say, “I don’t want to ask HR about my rights because there is a feeling that, 1) That I may not know the correct information, and 2) HR works for the company and isn’t looking out for our best interests.” How do you recommend expecting parents to approach their employer about all of this?
That’s such a great question because we get that a lot. No shade on HR, some good people are attracted to that career for sure. At the same time, there’s no real strict law that they must memorize all of our complicated laws. I hear from people whose HR has sometimes told them the wrong thing. For example, they will say that the non-birth parent and the birth parent have the same amount of time off, and that just isn’t true because if you are the birth parent, you have a little bit more protection, both for giving birth, recovering from birth, and then your bonding comes in.
These are complicated things. I say to parents that it is important to arm yourself with information and sometimes take the tack of it doesn’t have to be a negative thing that you may have to educate your HR about what your needs are for your maternity leave or paternity leave. For me, I went out. It was something like sixteen weeks with the twins because of the Twin-to-Twin Transfusion.
Like you and a lot of other people, I was in shock that I was going to have to go out. I did have to, in a gentle way, educate my HR about, “I get this time because of pregnancy disability leave, and then later I will bond.” I was so thankful to have that time. It’s important to share with HR what your plan is. If something happens, you may need to go out earlier or stay out later. You never know. Work with them and be as informative as possible. It varies workplace by workplace how much people trust HR. One thing we do in the coalition is trying to equip what we call trusted messengers.
People who work in communities or community leaders. People like Katie when she was working in the hospital. A lot of different people because sometimes somebody will not go to their HR but may listen to another person in their community. We are trying to get more people to have this information to educate each other with them.
That makes advocates. I love the term trusted messenger. I don’t know who came up with that but I love it.
I’m not sure who came up with it but we use it a lot. We have learned that for better or for worse, that isn’t always your boss. It can be but it isn’t always. We need to work with what’s out there and respect the fact that people are getting information, sometimes from their healthcare provider or other people in the community.
What resources do you recommend if you feel your company is in violation of your rights?
The best resource that we are super lucky to have is that there are some LA organizations we are starting to work with, too. There are some legal services because you do sometimes hit up against an employer that says, “Absolutely not. You will be fired.” You have the right to take this leave. We recommend people call legal aid at work. I have their number right on my bulletin board.
It’s 1 (800) 880-8047. I can send that to you if you want to post it somewhere but they have a helpline that people can call and give direct legal advice. We can steer people in the right direction but we aren’t lawyers, so we can’t give legal advice. However, they can and will give free legal advice. They help thousands and thousands of Californians every year, specifically with their leave rights.
What about resources? I know your organization has a ton of resources as well. Do you want to talk about what you can offer to help people get their questions answered about what they are eligible for?
We have a great resource. Our website is good. WorkFamilyCA.org but we also have a website to explain Paid Family Leave Laws, and it’s called PaidFamilyLeave.org. If you are from another state, you can, there’s a place to click to find information from your state but it’s basically California. We have such complicated laws. It helps people navigate what their rights are and helps them apply them. It goes through that. We also create a resource hub because people want all the resources in one place. We are doing that. There’s a one-stop shop for California workers that came out of our training. People wanted an easy place to access everything that they needed.
That’s nice for our readers not in California because, as you’ve mentioned, laws vary greatly per state what protection that you get.
There’s practically in every state. There’s at least an organization like ours, even when the state doesn’t have paid leave, that they are either fighting for paid leave but also can educate on what they do have in that state.
At the very core, in California, what are we entitled to? How many weeks?
We have twelve weeks of job-protected bonding time. Eight weeks are paid by paid family leave. Even that’s complicated because it doesn’t completely line up. For a pregnant worker, you would have up to four months of pregnancy disability leave if you need it. For the most part, people would take four weeks before their due date, and then after birth, they would take either 6 or 8 weeks if they had a C-section, and then their bonding leave starts. A pregnant worker has a lot more time because you are able to recover from pregnancy after you have the baby and then still have twelve weeks of bonding time after that.
You can roll that into postpartum.
For non-birth families too, there are twelve weeks of caregiving leave. Eight of them are paid by paid family leave. Even for birthing, families does matter because, let’s say, you have an incident in your family where maybe you are taking bonding time but a sibling could take time to care for a parent if something like that was needed in the same year. It’s always good for everybody to have that whole picture.
What percentage of families go back at eight weeks, would you say? Do you have any stats on that?It's essential to arm yourself with information and sometimes take the tack to educate your HR about your needs for your maternity or paternity leave. Click To Tweet
It’s a little hard because we would have stats and are getting some of this information from the EDD where you apply to take your paid leave because we do know that lower-income workers if they are denied a claim, they often don’t follow up. Higher-income workers do. They may take less time overall. We don’t know because it’s not recorded the same way is the job-protected time.
The statistic we know the most is how much more, when I say high-income workers, I don’t mean super-rich. People making a decent $75,000 to $80,000. People are taking paid leave. Under that, which is a lot of Californians, it’s not enough. There are a lot of parents in that category, and there needs to be a lot more support.
The one thing we know is that a high percentage of people still don’t know about paid leave, and that does break down by income, by immigration status, and by that, I don’t even mean documented or undocumented. Even somebody who is from a new immigrant family may be less likely to know about it. Younger workers are less likely to know about it.
LA County specifically had a low awareness rate even a few years ago. This is something that seems simple that we have to work on is things like this show spreading the information so that people know they have this right. Everybody’s paying into it. In California, almost everybody is paying into it. We should be able to use it but we need so much support. Even talking to you now reminds me how much support parents need to feel confident and comfortable taking this time off.
I feel like it’s a responsibility we all have to educate each other on things like this.
Things like what you do are so important to build connections between parents. Sometimes I wonder, “Why in our country is it hard when we have so much here to have something as basic as paid leave and in countries a lot poorer, it’s a right?” It is part of our culture sometimes to focus on the individual. It’s your problem, and you are going to solve your own problem your own way but we all have the same problem. We have children, and we need each other.
Paid leave is such a great example of we are all pooling our resources together, and then when it’s time that you need it, you are able to use it. There’s nothing more beautiful than that when it comes to policy. We must almost work backward and create a culture that is supportive of that if we are ever going to have what we need for parents.
Is there anything that I should have asked you that I haven’t or anything you want to cover before we sign off?
Not really. I’m happy to be here, and we covered a lot of what is happening. I encourage people to get involved and try to pass some of these laws and in educating their community about the laws. I’m doing that through you. I feel like if people are part of something and are part of your organization or part of other organizations, that is the best way to work together to make this difference. I would love for all of you to get involved in the coalition and be involved in spreading information about this law that we need to pass some more low-income workers. LA County and Pasadena can also take this leave. Anything like that would be helpful.
It’s everyone’s responsibility. Every once in a while, Katie will text me and be like, “Can you call this lawmaker? You are a small business owner in their county. I will tell you what to say.” Done. I always do it, and that’s such an easy thing to do. We all should be doing it.
Our lawmakers love hearing from small business owners because they love supporting small business and their districts. If more small business owners take a vocal stance on these issues, it will make a huge difference.
I’m a small business that supports families. It’s a no-brainer. I’m happy to do it. I should be doing more. Something I ask all my guests at the end of the show is something they googled and what they learned. I don’t know if there’s anything you would like to share.
This is so random. Do you ever look back on your education and think, “There are some things I didn’t learn that I want to learn still at this age even.” I’m teaching myself Geography more. I have been picking a different African country each week because there are almost as many as there are weeks in the year. I wouldn’t say study. Study is way too dramatic but to learn about a little bit. I googled Madagascar and found out that people from Madagascar are called Malagasy, which I never knew.
How long have you been doing it?
This is odd but I know a friend of mine her son is a brilliant and smart first grader. We were trying to remember by heart all the countries in Africa by writing them down. We were doing a contest, and I did not do very well. I thought there was a hole in my geographical knowledge. I have been reading books. At least half the books I will read will be something about African history pre and post-colonial. I google a different country and watch a short video. I have a little African notebook. It’s very geeky. Next time, I may do another region of the world until I have the geographical basic knowledge. We are only going for basic knowledge here.
I would fail miserably. I am in all of your efforts. That’s so cool. I love it. That was a good one. Thank you again for all of your amazing work in getting us to where we are and for your continued efforts to get us even more time and make things better for parents.
Thank you for everything you do. People need to join organizations, become part of something, and meet their people, and you are providing a way for people to do that. Especially in this country that goes so much against us coming together sometimes, it’s the only way we have been able to change anything. It’s key. I’m excited to learn more about what you all do.
Thank you for saying that. You are very sweet. It was great talking.