​Do you know about paid family leave? Lots of Californians don’t.

By Sarah Crow

A few months ago, I was working with a group of advocates, organized by the California Work & Family Coalition, that was focused on raising awareness about a lack of awareness: California is home to one of the country’s few programs that offer workers paid time off when they have a baby, adopt or foster a new child, or need to take care of a sick family member. But a lot of people don’t know about it. And how can you take advantage of a program you don’t know about?

We took our case to the legislators: Paid family leave has been shown to have great benefits for families who use it. Now is the time to put a renewed effort in letting people know that the support is there – especially given that almost all California’s workers pay into the system that pays out benefits.

We were ultimately successful. As a result of our work, the 2014 state supplemental budget includes a $1 million allocation to be used for paid family leave outreach. Legislators signed on to a proposal that would raise that allocation to $2.5 million in 2015 and $3 million in 2016.

It turns out our efforts were more necessary than we thought. According to a new Field Poll, general awareness of paid family leave has dropped -- from 43% of respondents in 2011 to just 36% a few months ago. And awareness is particularly low among some groups of Californians who may need the benefit the most.

“The state of California has a Paid Family Leave program that provides up to 6 weeks of paid family leave for eligible workers, at up to 55% of their weekly earnings up to a maximum of $1,075 per week. Have you seen, read or heard anything about the Paid Family Leave program?”

Young people, seniors, Latinos, and those with the least education and the lowest incomes are less aware of the program compared to other groups. Los Angeles County is the region with the lowest level of awareness.

These are groups to be concerned about. People in their twenties are likely to be starting families and their careers, and may need to take time off from a job to care for a new baby. While people in their 60s are less likely to be working, this group is working more than ever before and may have family members who experience an illness, or may want to take time off to care for a new grandchild.

But low-income workers, as a group, have very low awareness of the program, and that’s a particular problem. The program’s architects had this group in mind when the program was created because people who earn higher wages are more able to afford to take time off from their jobs, and the jobs they have are more likely to offer this kind of benefit regardless of what the state provides. It’s the low-income families that most need the support of this program.

Awareness is down among all groups, though the declines are larger for some. Latinos’ awareness was the lowest among all the ethnic/racial groups in 2011 and is even lower in 2014. Asians’ awareness of the program dropped the most, however – by 16 percentage points since 2011. The only groups to show increased awareness is high-income earners and people in their 30s, though these increases were very small.

Californians want and need the support that paid family leave provides. Overall, 64% of those who knew about the program said they were “very likely” to use it if they had a new baby or were caring for an ill family member. Another 13% said they were somewhat likely to do so. Although sample sizes are small, these results broken out by demographic group suggest that the very groups that have the lowest awareness of the programs – specifically low-wage workers and racial/ethnic minorities – are the most likely to say they would use the program if they needed it.

This information demonstrates that outreach – spreading the word widely in ways that people understand and can act on – is a clear need if the state is serious about supporting families. The Employment Development Department, which administers paid family leave, has taken steps to focus on outreach this year using the new funding allocation, and advocates are at the table every step of the way to advise them on reaching target populations. With some thoughtful collaboration and dedication, I’m sure we can turn these numbers around by the next time we do this survey.

Thanks to CCRWF for its leadership in raising funds for these Field Poll questions. Contributions made by CCRWF, Equal Rights Associates, AARP, Legal Aid Society-Employment Law Center, the Women’s Caucus, the Women’s Foundation of California, and Next Generation made this research possible.