family leave

California Expands Access to Family Leave

Juliana Chang

Juliana Chang is a student at Harvard Law School and a member of the Labor and Employment Lab.

Governor Gavin Newsom recently signed Assembly Bill 1041 into law, extending the definition of “family member” under certain family leave laws, and expanding access to leave and care for many Californians.

In the Assembly Floor Analysis of the bill, the legislature noted that “just 18.4% of American households follow the traditional nuclear family structure.” AB 1041 has been celebrated for advancing California’s family-leave laws past outdated notions of nuclear families and bringing the law more in line with the realities of people’s living situations. Many of the legislative documents have emphasized the impact such a bill would have on LGBTQ+ families, multigenerational households, and older Americans who rely on extrafamilial networks of care.

This article will briefly explain the changes passed into law by AB 1041, before examining how AB 1041 could impact different kinds of families in California.

What does the law do?

AB 1041 amends the definition of “family member” under two laws: the California Family Rights Act (CFRA), which provides Californians with up to 12 weeks of unpaid family and medical leave, and the Healthy Workplaces Healthy Families Act (HWHFA), which provides Californians with around three days of paid sick leave. California’s kin care provisions in the Labor Code draw their definition of “family member” from the HWHFA, so any changes to the HWHFA definition will likely impact those provisions as well. Kin care allows workers to use up to half of their accrued paid sick leave (which includes HWHFA sick time and any other employer-provided sick time) to care for a family member.

Prior to AB 1041’s passage, the definition of “family member” in California was already much broader than the definitions used in federal law. While the federal Family Medical Leave Act limits “family member” to a parent, spouse, or child, the CFRA extended its definition in 2021 to also cover siblings, grandparents, adult children, and domestic partners.

AB 1041 builds on that extension by allowing a “designated person” to count as a family member. Under AB 1041, an employee can identify someone as their designated person and use the leave granted under the CFRA and HWHFA for care for that person. Both amendments provide additional flexibility by allowing employees to wait until they are ready to take leave to identify a designated person.

One interesting aspect of the amendment is that the criteria for “designated person” is slightly different under each law. Under the CFRA amendment, the designated person must be “any individual related by blood or whose association with the employee is the equivalent of a family relationship.” On the other hand, the HWHFA amendment contains no such limitations, and a designated person under the HWHFA can be anyone “identified by the employee at the time the employee requests paid sick days.”

This expansion follows in the footsteps of similar laws passed in Oregon, Colorado, New Jersey, and Washington State, where LGBTQ and work-family groups organized and advocated zealously for more inclusive family definitions. AB 1041’s passage should largely be credited to the advocacy of local groups like the California Work & Family Coalition.

How this changes things for California families

California has a history of leading the nation in advancing leave policies; in fact, California is the home of the first state-paid family leave program in the country. As discussed above, California has already previously extended leave coverage to a wide variety of family relationships, increasing paid leave protections for multi-generational households and LGBTQ families. Even so, the inclusion of a “designated person” stands to improve access to family leave.

First, a “designated person” expansion recognizes that care can and does happen outside of family and family-like relationships and allows people reliant on those networks to get and give the care they need. Many Americans rely on roommates, close friends, and chosen family when they need care. What is compelling about the designated person model is that it allows people to self-define their care networks. While California had made great strides in the past by expanding eligible family members to include extended family and domestic, doing so still ultimately limited people to relying on specific kinds of relationships for care.

The “designated person” amendment is especially impactful for LGBTQ+ workers, who rely on chosen family at far higher rates than non-LGBTQ workers. In one 2017 survey, the Center for American Progress found that over 70% of transgender workers had taken time off of work to care for a close friend or chosen family member. In one op-ed, Preston Van Vliet, an organizer, explained that moving from Michigan to DC meant that his “biological family members — the individuals most typically defined as ‘family’ in paid leave laws and policies — [were] now hundreds of miles away.” In their place, his family in D.C. consisted of “[his] partner, a close trans community, and — serendipitously — [his] childhood best friend.” Van Vliet asserted that “if something serious happened to me or my partner, we would rely on this chosen family to help us survive.”

Extended community care is also prevalent in many immigrant communities, low-income communities, households headed by single parents, and for elderly people who live alone. One study by the Bureau of Labor Statistics found that over 20% of people who provide unpaid eldercare do so for elders they are unrelated to, like a friend or a neighbor.

In addition to bringing the law in line with the existing diversity of care networks in the US, an amendment like AB 1041 also encourages and facilitates more non-familial care. Over the past few years, the COVID-19 pandemic brought to light how isolated and ill-equipped our communities were to care for one another. One hope is that this law more broadly allows us to expand beyond outdated nuclear family–centered systems of care and community and towards models that allow us to more expansively take care of one another.

While the passage of AB 1041 should be celebrated, there remains plenty of room for continued improvement in leave laws. AB 1041 doesn’t amend the definition of “family member” under California’s paid leave laws, and unpaid leave continues to be a fundamentally inaccessible benefit for many low-income workers. The law also allows employers to restrict employees to one designated person every 12 months. While this policy purportedly prevents abuse of leave laws, there’s little evidence to indicate leave policies are abused much, if at all, and such a restriction risks limiting people’s ability to use family leave.

As evidenced by decades of limited policies, restrictive family definitions in the law can marginalize workers and limit access to care for many of our most vulnerable communities. Expanding family definitions can help facilitate existing communities of care and ensure that no one has to suffer adverse workplace consequences for caring for their loved ones. AB 1041 is another step in the right direction for family definitions, one that should be celebrated for its potential.

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