A Quick Word with Alex Holod on Awareness of Family Leave Policy in California

Image of baby in parents' arms

According to existing research, giving mothers paid time off could lead to both improved health outcomes and overall costs savings from reduced employee turnover and re-training costs. However, none of these positive outcomes can occur if mothers aren't aware of their family leave access, or don't take advantage of it.

The Family Leave and Health Outcomes Study, conducted jointly by AIR and Kaiser Permanente Northern California Division of Research, was designed to learn about California families' experiences with family leave and their subsequent health. The study explored California mothers' awareness of, eligibility for, and use of family leave benefits, including paid leave and job-protected leave afforded under state and federal policy.

Aleksandra Holod, Ph.D., is a developmental psychologist and senior early childhood researcher at AIR. In this interview, she describes the benefits of family leave for both parent and child, why some parents aren’t taking full advantage of available family leave, and the lessons California offers the rest of the country.

Q. Why did you choose California for this study?

Holod: We chose California for this study because it was the first state to implement a paid family leave policy more than 15 years ago, and it continues to be a leader in family leave policy. In addition, our research partnership with the Kaiser Permanente Northern California Division of Research allowed us to gather unique data on women’s use of family leave that could be linked to maternal and child health records. 

Q. This project was funded by AIR. Why did our organization use its own resources to conduct this research?

Holod: Five years ago, AIR began a conversation about issues of racial and economic inequality in early childhood under the leadership of Eboni Howard. We discussed the disparities that emerge very early in children’s lives and stem from inequalities in life circumstances. We also noted that little funding is available to support research on vulnerable infants and toddlers and the programs that may improve their life chances. As a result of those conversations, AIR decided to make an investment in research that addresses inequality in the early childhood.

California's Family Leave Policy

At the time of this study, California’s Paid Family Leave (PFL) program, combined with the State Disability Insurance program, provided working mothers with up to 55% of their base wages for at least twelve weeks following the birth of a child. (Since the study, this has risen to 60-70% of base wages, depending on income level.)

Additionally, the federal Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) and the California Family Rights Act (CFRA) require employers to hold women’s jobs for them until they return from their twelve of family leave.

Q. What did the study find about awareness of family leave among women in California?

Holod: We found that awareness of and access to family leave benefits varies by race and income. Black and Hispanic women are less likely to know about the availability of paid family leave than white women. Low income working women are less likely to know they can receive these benefits than higher income women. Our findings echo those of a previous study conducted by Ruth Milkman and Eileen Appelbaum about ten years ago, suggesting that this is an ongoing concern.

Q. What are the consequences of this disparity in knowledge?

Holod: The women who could benefit the most from job protection and wage replacement during family leave are the least likely to receive these benefits. Women of color and low-income families experience a disproportionate share of preventable maternal and child health conditions, and there is ample research demonstrating that family leave can have an impact on these conditions. Specifically, family leave is associated with lower instances of preterm births, low birthweight, and infant mortality. Women who take longer leaves after birth are less likely to experience postpartum depression. In addition, as my colleague Susan Muenchow notes in her book Time off with Baby, infants whose mothers take time off of work in the first three months after birth are also more likely to be breastfed, and receive well-baby visits and immunizations on time.

Q. What can policymakers do to help reduce this knowledge disparity?

Holod: In 2014, California’s state legislature allocated funding for outreach and public education to increase awareness and use of the paid family leave program. They took action because available data indicated that awareness of the program was low, especially among low-income, immigrant, and other workers who would benefit the most from the program. Some specific challenges included misinformation and confusion about the eligibility requirements and the application process. In addition, employers said they needed a better understanding of the program in order to advise their employees. Our research shows that outreach and education is an ongoing need. 

Q. Are the lessons learned from your study applicable to other states, or are California’s leave policies too distinctive?

Holod: The lessons learned from our research and other studies of California’s family leave policy absolutely can and should inform policy in other states. Since California first implemented its family leave policy in July 2004, six other states and the District of Columbia have followed in California’s footsteps and enacted paid family leave policies. Although these state policies they may vary with regard to the duration of leave that is paid, the percentage of pre-birth wages that will be replaced through state benefits, and other dimensions, they are more similar than different. Therefore, we expect that outreach efforts to raise awareness of paid family leave policy would be beneficial in other states as well.