The news that New York state has just passed what is being hailed as the most comprehensive and generous paid family leave law in the country had me thinking about the lyrics to Frank Sinatra’s “New York, New York.”
As the song goes, “If I can make it there, I’ll make it anywhere / It’s up to you, New York, New York.”
If New York, with its 19 million-plus population, will soon allow all workers in the state — women and men — to take up to three months off per year to care for a new child or a seriously ill family member while still getting a share of their salary, you have to wonder if other states will eventually follow its lead.
“I think it’s a game changer,” said Dina Bakst, co-founder and co-president of A Better Balance: The Work and Family Legal Center, one of the many organizations which had been lobbying for the new paid family leave policies. “I think it’s going to create tremendous momentum and fuel these state campaigns, and ultimately movement in Congress.”
New York followed in the footsteps of three other states, California, New Jersey and Rhode Island, but it went much further. While California and New Jersey offer six weeks off per year with some pay, and Rhode Island offers four weeks, New York is offering up to 12 weeks. Globally, the United States remains the only industrialized country that does not guarantee paid family leave for its workers.
“We’ve gotten so used to nothing, zero weeks, which is what our national standard is, that some people argue for the most minimal. And this recognizes what every expert in infant care, neurosurgeons, social workers, etc. tell us, which is that 12 weeks, first of all for bonding with an infant, is the absolute minimum that parents need,” said Ellen Bravo, executive director of Family Values @ Work, a network of coalitions in 24 states working to enact paid sick leave and paid family leave policies.
New York’s move will give a boost to efforts to win passage this year of 12-week paid family leave in the District of Columbia, Massachusetts and Connecticut, said Bravo. Eighteen states are in some stage of exploring paid family leave, including having a bill introduced or a task force actively working on the issue, she added.
Cost paid by employees, not businesses
The new policy, signed into law by New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo on Monday, will be phased in gradually: Beginning in 2018, workers will get up to eight weeks per year and 50% of their average weekly wage capped to 50% of the statewide average weekly wage. The benefit will eventually increase, in 2021, to 12 weeks and 67% of the worker’s average weekly wage, capped to 67% of the statewide average weekly wage. Workers will be eligible for the benefits once they’ve worked for their employer for six months.
The cost won’t be paid by businesses, which is another reason this new law could give more momentum to other state-wide campaigns, since critics of mandatory paid family leave policies, including some current and former Republican presidential candidates, argue they could dramatically hurt both small and large enterprises. The new plan will be financed by small paycheck deductions, around a dollar per week per employee.
“The fact that it is all employee-paid makes it extremely difficult to say that this is going to be a cost to employers, because we know that this is an employee-funded benefit,” said Bakst. “We’re talking (about) less than a cup of coffee a week out of an employee’s paycheck, which then gives workers the peace of mind that they can leave work without facing devastating economic consequences.”
Bakst and Bravo also point to the experiences of states that currently have paid family leave and a growing body of evidence that “shreds the predictions of doom from the opposition,” said Bravo.
The majority of businesses in the states with paid family leave support the policies, which have had either a positive or neutral effect on profitability, productivity and retention, she added.
‘When political men … put their brawn behind it’
Just a year ago, Cuomo said the state legislature did not have the “appetite” for paid family leave, but he grew more passionate about the issue after his father, former New York Gov. Mario Cuomo, died, and his partner, Sandra Lee, was diagnosed with breast cancer.
In his State of the State message this year, he said, “Life is such a precious gift and I have kicked myself every day that I didn’t spend more time with my father at that end period.”
Rebecca Traister, in New York magazine, said part of the reason paid family leave is enjoying so much success is because powerful men are getting behind it.
“It seems worth noting that an issue that has been considered third-rail-feminist radicalism for decades, so improbable when it is described as ‘maternity leave’ that we wave it off as a pipe dream, can gain steam when political men — Barack Obama, Andrew Cuomo, Joe Biden — put their brawn behind it, and begin to describe the ways in which men might benefit,” she wrote. “It’s key to understanding how ‘women’s issues’ can become, simply, issues.”
In addition to Obama, Cuomo and Biden, the Democratic presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders have put the issue of paid family leave front and center in their campaigns.
“What’s exciting about it happening in New York is that it showed that even in a state with mixed (party) leadership, the overwhelming popularity, but also the overwhelming need for paid family leave overcame ideology and partisanship,” said Bravo.
The majority of the research surrounding paid leave shows definite benefits to the baby, mother and family, including a decline in infant and maternal mortality, an increase in breast-feeding rates and more involvement by fathers in their children’s lives and in child care activities.
“One of the great things that’s happening in New Jersey and Rhode Island, for example, is that in one year, this is one of the things they found, was this big increase in use by dads,” said Bravo. “Our society tells dads ‘We need you to be more involved with your kids’ and then punishes their families if they do. And when you change that, not surprisingly more and more dads do accept what we need them to do.”
Still a long way to go
Of course, the United States still has a long way to go before it matches other industrialized countries, which not only guarantee paid leave, but offer a generous amount of time with pay. The total paid maternity leave plus paid parental leave and home care leave available for mothers is 58 weeks in Japan, 52 weeks in Canada and 39 weeks in the United Kingdom. Fathers get up to 52 weeks paid paternity leave in Japan, 14 weeks in Norway and nearly nine weeks in Croatia.
Some 13% of American workers do receive paid leave through their employers, and the United States does guarantee up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave under the 1993 Family and Medical Leave Act, but only in companies with 50 or more employees, and only if you worked for at least a year at the company and at least 1,250 hours during that year. Based on those provisions, some 40% of American workers aren’t entitled to the unpaid leave. And for many that are, they can’t afford to work without a paycheck.
The ultimate goal is a federal law guaranteeing paid leave, activists say, and the victory, they believe, will come through the states.
“I definitely think what happened here in New York will pave the way for actions in other states and then hopefully Congress,” said Bakst.
Added Bravo, “As more and more people who are or want to be elected officials realize that this is good politics as well as good policy, eventually the momentum will be such that … it will be a jobs issue for them. If they want to get or keep their job, this is something they’re going to have to commit to.”
What do you think of New York’s new paid family leave policies? Do you think other states will follow its lead? Share your thoughts with Kelly Wallace on Twitter @kellywallacetv.