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CBS13 Investigates: Why Most California Parents Can't Use Paid Family Leave For School Closures

SACRAMENTO (CBS13) — The federal Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA) was supposed to provide Paid Family Leave to parents when schools or childcare centers closed due coronavirus. However, research indicates most working Californians don't qualify for the federal benefits.

Now, CBS13 has learned Californians will likely pay at least 50% more in state Disability/Paid Family Leave taxes (SDI) next year, but California parents won't be able to use their state Paid Family Leave for school closures either.

In all, five out of six working Californians may not qualify for federal Paid Family Leave under the FFCRA and state lawmakers have killed or gutted any legislation that would have let parents use state Paid Family Leave or even sick leave for COVID-related school closures.

Who Does Get Federal Paid Family Leave?

Kelly Carroll, a single mom of two with special needs, said she was scared when she realized schools were closing due to COVID last year. She wasn't sure how the family would make it financially or emotionally.

"I love my job and now I'm being told that I need to figure out how I'm going to homeschool both of my kids," Carroll said.

She had some help from family but had to stay home with the kids at least two days a week.

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"This is one of the most difficult things that I've had to do," Carroll said. "I'm not a resource or a special ed teacher."

Luckily, she qualifies for Paid Family Leave under the FFCRA, which provides temporary federal help for parents who have to stay home due to coronavirus-related school or child care closures.

Her employer has to pay two-thirds of her paycheck on the days she stays home due to COVID-related school closures, up to 10 weeks total. Then the employer is reimbursed with federal tax credits.

"Without it, I don't know what I would do," Carroll said.

Though, she is one of the lucky ones because she works for a company with fewer than 500 employees. Larger companies are exempt from the law.

Most Exempt From Federal Paid Family Leave

Jenna Gerry, a staff attorney for Legal Aid, works on family leave legislation. She says there was a push from larger employers to be exempted from the federal leave program, leaving out millions of workers.

Gerry points to data from the National Partnership for Women and Families that shows five out of six working Californians may not qualify for the federal paid sick days or family leave, mostly because their companies are too big. Many of them are essential workers including grocery workers, health care employees, child care workers and those in social services.

"Parents are going to be hurting and we need to find a way to support them," Gerry said.

She notes that FFCRA also excludes first responders, medical workers, and people like Dana Gomez, who works for a company with fewer than 50 employees.

"It's just really disappointing," she said. "I've never been unemployed. I've never asked for benefits."

Gomez has a career, two young kids, and no realistic child care options amid the prospect of repeated school closures throughout the year.

Her kids' schools are starting off with distance learning though she points out that even after they go back in person, there will likely be repeated temporary closures throughout the school year.

Her immune-compromised mother used to watch her kids. Throughout the summer, Gomez's 18-year-old son has been helping out with child care, but he is getting ready to join the armed services in the fall.

Small businesses, like the one Gomez works for, may also be exempt from providing federal Paid Family Leave if they can prove that it would be a financial burden.

However, like most working Californians, Gomez pays into California's state Paid Family Leave (PFL) program through the disability tax (SDI) deducted from every paycheck.

"I've been paying into the system. I've been working since I was 15," Gomez said. "Why can't I use that Paid Family Leave?"

California Senators Kill Bill Expanding Paid Family Leave For School Closures

Unlike federal Paid Family Leave, the state PFL program can only be used to care for a seriously ill family member or bond with a new baby.

The chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee killed SB 943 Paid Family COVID-19 by refusing to bring it up for a vote. It would have extended Paid Family Leave for COVID-related school closures to all California parents.

However Gerry, a family leave advocate, explained that there is not enough money in the state's disability and family leave fund to cover paid leave for every working parent who might be impacted by school closures. She also noted, frankly, lawmakers didn't think EDD could handle implementing the change.

"Even if that bill would have passed, it was set to end in December of this year. And I'm not sure the EDD would be able to actually implement effectively this change to the system in time," Gerry said.

The state's Employment Development Department (EDD) has notoriously struggled to roll out unemployment benefits. Millions of Californians are still waiting for their unemployment benefits dating back to March and April.

Paid Family Leave Taxes Going Up, Parents Still Can't Use It For School Closures 

Meanwhile, it appears the EDD director is using her discretionary authority to increase the state disability insurance tax (SDI) by at least 50% next year. SDI, which is paid by most California workers, also funds the state's Paid Family Leave program.

With so many people taking disability and Paid Family Leave to care for sick family members this year, the EDD told lawmakers the fund is dwindling. The director has announced plans to increase the state disability tax from 1% to 1.5% next year. She also plans to increase the salary cap by up to 13%, taxing wages up to $130,000 a year instead of $115,000.

According to EDD's latest forecast, Californians will likely pay at least 50% more next year, meaning parents will be paying more but still can't use Paid Family Leave for school closures unless their child actually gets coronavirus.

"I don't think that that's fair. I think that those funds should be available to us," Carroll said.

"I should be able to use it for what I need to use it for," Gomez said.

Parents Can't Use Sick Leave For School Closures Either 

Another law that would have let parents take up to 10 paid sick days for school closures was first gutted - then died in the Senate. Initially, AB 316 included a provision for employers to add seven mandatory sick days during a pandemic.

Currently, California workers are entitled to three sick days. The bill would have provided up to 10 days of total sick leave during a state of emergency.

"Of course employers are strapped right now too and they do not want this new requirement to pay their employees this extra leave," Gerry explained.

The extra sick days were removed from the bill early on in the senate committee process, but the bill still included the following clause that would have allowed employees to at least use the sick days they have for school closures if needed:

"This bill would also require sick leave to be paid for an employee who is subject to a federal, state, or local public health order related to a public health emergency, to care for a family member subject to an order, including if the child or family member's school or place of care has been closed, and in specified other circumstances related to a state of emergency."

However, that clause was also removed from the bill before the chair of the Senate Labor Committee agreed to bring it up for a vote.

Without that provision, parents don't even have the right to use sick days for school closures unless their employer voluntarily agrees.

"I should be able to use whatever time I have," Caroll said. However, Gomez pointed out, "As a mom with three kids, my sick times are gone."

What Options Do Parents Have? Unpaid Leave or Unemployment

So what options do working parents have when their kid's schools close due to COVID-19?

Gerry says they can take unpaid leave and may qualify for unemployment insurance.

Those are now the only options for Caroll, whose federal paid leave is about to run out.

Millions of parents like Caroll and Gomez may now be forced to join millions of others already stuck in the state's unemployment backlog.

"I don't want that to be my future," Gomez said.

They're begging lawmakers to do something to help the millions of working parents faced with the new normal of school closures and few childcare options.

"They have to come up with a plan because this is getting worse," Carroll said.

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