How New York's paid family leave is a revolutionary step for employees

Ian Pajer-Rogers |

From The Guardian:

by Joanna Walters

New York state has announced plans for the most far-reaching paid family leave law in America, as well as promising to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour. 

The state will mandate the right to 12 weeks of paid leave for both private sector workers asking for time off to care for a new baby and workers who need to look after a sick child or partner, a dying parent or other such family emergency.

The system is designed to be paid for with insurance-style funds made up of fees deducted from pay packets, rather than costing companies directly.

After long and largely unsuccessful battles to improve notoriously stingy maternity leave rights across the country, the New York law will introduce an extensive and egalitarian model which advocates hope will now influence other states and federal lawmakers.

New York’s governor, Andrew Cuomo, announced late on Thursday that the state legislature had agreed the new policy on paid family leave. In addition, he promised to increase the state minimum wage, in phases, from $9 to $15 an hour over two to six years.

Employees’ rights advocates are calling the wage boost a “revolution in the workplace”.

“I believe this is the best plan the state has produced in decades,” Cuomo said after long hours of negotiations in Albany brought agreement on the next annual budget, which includes the new measures.

The right to three months of paid family leave a year will be offered to mothers and fathers adopting or fostering as well as having their own biological children. It will be mandated for men and women needing to nurse a sick partner, spouse, parent or other family member.

New York is only the fifth state in the US to adopt a paid family leave law. California implemented such a law in 2004, but it only offers six weeks of paid leave, as do provisions passed in New Jersey in 2009 and Rhode Island in 2014. Washington state adopted a similar measure in 2007 but has yet to put it into practice.

Federal family and medical leave laws passed in 1993 under Bill Clinton’s administration only guaranteed 12 weeks of unpaid leave and job protection, and excluded companies with fewer than 50 employees.

New York’s new law will guarantee pay and applies to small businesses as well as large companies. It covers the private sector; public sector unions can opt in.

“This is the most robust paid family leave program in the US, it’s tremendous and will be a revolution in the workplace and for economic justice,” said Donna Dolan, executive director of the Time to Care New York Paid Leave Coalition, a campaign group with corporate and union members that has been battling for better leave rights for more than 15 years.

Dolan pointed out that America is still far behind the rest of the developed world; countries such as the UK offer 40 weeks of paid maternity leave. But she called New York’s plan a “pacesetter”.

Massachusetts, Connecticut and Washington DC are close to passing new paid family leave laws, she said.

Dolan said Democratic presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders have declared strong support for mandatory paid family leave, while the Republican candidates left in the race, Donald Trump, Ted Cruz and John Kasich, have not publicly addressed the issue.

“It’s just not on their radar screen,” she said.

New York senator Kirsten Gillibrand has co-sponsored a bill mandating national paid family leave, but, Dolan said, it has no chance of passing a Congress paralyzed by partisan legislative gridlock and controlled by Republicans.

Mandated paid family leave in New York state will begin in 2018 with employees being docked approximately 70 cents a week from their pay. The money will be paid into a family leave insurance fund, and the program will be phased in over three to four years.

According to the New York state department of labor, workers paid at or below the state average weekly wage, which in 2014 was $1,266.44, will receive two-thirds of their average pay while on family leave. The program will be capped at the state average, so higher-paid workers will lose out.

“This program will be funded entirely through a nominal payroll deduction on employees, so it costs business, both big and small, nothing,” Cuomo said.

Read more from The Guardian.