A bill by state Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson, D-Santa Barbara, to strengthen California’s Paid Family Leave program by allowing workers to receive benefits while caring for seriously ill grandparents, grandchildren, siblings and in-laws passed off the Senate floor Tuesday. The vote was 29-9.

Senate Bill 770 would expand the definition of family to more accurately reflect the caregiving responsibilities of California families.

California has the second-highest percentage of multi-generational households in the country. In a recent study of caregivers of Alzheimer’s patients, more than 40 percent of caregivers were not covered under the narrow definition of family in California’s Paid Family Leave law. Another study found that nearly 20 percent of primary caregivers for chronically disabled individuals are neither the spouse nor the child of the person receiving care.

“Family members shouldn’t have to make a terrible choice between caring for their seriously ill grandmother or brother and putting food on the table,” Jackson said. “This bill would strengthen this worker-funded program to reflect the reality of family responsibilities in California.”

California’s Paid Family Leave Law was the first in the nation to provide partial pay to workers taking time off to care for seriously ill family members or to bond with a new child. Funded entirely by employee payroll deductions, Paid Family Leave provides up to six weeks of partial wage replacement benefits per year. However, current law only covers leave to care for a parent, child, spouse or registered domestic partner. In other words, employees may not receive benefits to care for an ill sibling, grandparent, grandchild or parent-in-law.

“Today’s vote shows that the California Senate understands the importance of supporting workers with caregiving responsibilities,” said Sharon Terman, senior staff attorney with the Legal Aid Society-Employment Law Center, the bill’s sponsor. “Workers in California contribute a portion of every paycheck to the Paid Family Leave program. Yet, even when a close relative faces a life-threatening illness, many workers cannot access the program because their relatives are excluded under current law. No one should have to choose between maintaining an income and caring for a loved one in a medical crisis. Today’s vote is an important step toward ensuring that California workers do not have to make that impossible choice.”

According to a Senate Office of Research study, the Employment Development Department rejects about 10 percent of Paid Family Leave claims because the employee sought leave to care for an excluded family member.

A 2011 study found that the vast majority of employers reported that Paid Family Leave had either a positive or no noticeable effect on their business productivity, profitability and employee morale.

— Lisa Gardiner is the communications director for state Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson.