By Melody Gutierrez

California workers who need to take time off to care for a newborn or family member will receive up to 70 percent of their pay after Gov. Jerry Brown signed a bill Monday to expand the benefit.

Brown said AB908 adds to the state's efforts to address income inequality. He recently signed a bill to raise the state's minimum wage to $15 by 2022.

"We are trying to compensate for gross inequality," Brown said at a Capitol news conference in his office. "This will help a lot of people."

The bill's author, Assemblyman Jimmy Gomez, D-Los Angeles, said many low-wage workers can't afford to take advantage of the Paid Family Leave Program, which now provides 55 percent of a person's pay for up to six weeks of leave, and the state disability insurance program, which provides 55 percent of pay for up to 52 weeks depending on the non-work-related injury.

Under AB908, workers making around minimum wage would be eligible for 70 percent of their pay while on paid family leave or on state disability, while other workers who earn more would be eligible for 60 percent of their pay, Gomez said.

The new law goes into effect in 2018 and comes on the heels of San Francisco becoming the first U.S. city to require six weeks of fully paid leave for new parents.

"This program is for all workers and all families -- women and men, gay or straight," Gomez said. "However, after 10 years of data, we've learned that the Paid Family Leave Program is simply out of reach for many Californians because the wage-replacement rate is simply too low."

President Obama lauded the expansion, calling it "great news for California."

Expanding the program will cost the state an additional $348 million in 2018 and $587 million by 2021, which would come out of the state's Disability Insurance Fund, which is funded by employee payroll deductions. That fund has reserves of $3.3 billion, which is 60 percent of annual program costs.

California was the first state in the nation to create a paid family leave program, which began in 2004. In 2013, the program was used by 204,000 people, with 90 percent of those claims filed by parents taking time off to bond with a newborn. The average claim in 2013 was $527 a week for 5.4 weeks.

The current maximum weekly amount is set at $1,104 and is adjusted every year based on the statewide average weekly rate.

Vivian Thorp of the Alameda County Homeless Action Center, who is now taking care of her ill mother, said the bill will help many people who find themselves in the unexpected position of caring for a loved one.

"This is absolutely vital," Thorp said.

(c)2016 the San Francisco Chronicle