New York state approves country's most generous paid family leave law

New York State's new budget deal includes a paid-leave program that will offer the most paid leave in the nation once it's fully implemented in 2021. California, New Jersey, and Rhode Island have already established programs that partially replace workers' salaries when they take time off work to care for a new child or family member with a serious health condition, or to address their own disabling condition. These programs allow for a maximum of four weeks (Rhode Island) or six weeks (California and New Jersey) for family care; New York will allow for up to 12 weeks.

Like the other states, New York will fund the program through payroll taxes, building on their existing system for temporary disability insurance. It will cover both full- and part-time employees, including those working for small businesses, who've been employed for at least six months. It will also offer job protection, so workers can be assured of being able to return to work once their leave has ended. At New York's The Cut, Rebecca Traister explains the law's phase-in and maximum benefits:

Expectant parents shouldn’t get too excited yet; paid leave won’t kick in until January 1, 2018, and then it will be gradually phased in. In 2018, employees will be eligible for up to 8 weeks of leave a year, followed by up to 10 weeks in 2019 and 2020, then up to 12 weeks starting in 2021. Initially, it will cover just 50 percent of a worker’s average pay. Over four years, it will rise and eventually replace 67 percent of a worker’s average pay. The total amount is capped at two-thirds of the state’s average weekly wage, which in 2014 was $1,266.44. For high-salaried New Yorkers, a weekly max of $848 will mean a big temporary pay cut, yet it’s better than what the state currently mandates, which is nothing.

Many of us are fortunate to receive paid leave from our employers, but in most states these are still optional benefits. At the federal level, the Family and Medical Leave Act allows workers to take unpaid leave for up to 12 weeks -- but about 40% of the workforce isn't eligible for leave under the FMLA, and many of those who are eligible can't afford the unpaid time off. (Ineligible workers include those working fewer than 25 hours per week with an employer, workers at businesses with fewer than 50 employees, and those who want to care for a family member who doesn’t meet the official “family” designation.) Sharon Lerner reported for In These Times that nearly one in four US women return to work within two weeks of having a child, because so many women can't afford to take more time off work to recover their own health and care for their newborns.

When workers can't afford to take time off work to heal, tend to a sick family member, or bond with a new child, public health suffers (see Kim's recent post for some of the latest research documenting this). That's why the American Public Health Association has called on Congress to pass legislation to make paid medical and family leave available to all workers. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand and Representative Rose DeLauro introduced the Family and Medical Leave Insurance (FAMILY) Act in 2013 and reintroduced it in 2015 to create a national payroll tax-funded insurance system for paid leave. Our current Congress doesn't seem appropriately receptive, which is why more states keep taking matters into their own hands. Slate's Christina Cauterucci reports:

Debates around paid family leave are currently occuring in the Massachusetts and Connecticut state legislatures. The latter is considering a bill that didn’t make it to a vote in 2015; it would fund 12 weeks of full pay up to $52,000 through a payroll tax. In Massachusetts, U.S. Deputy Secretary of Labor Chris Lu has advocated for pending bills that would offer 12 weeks of family leave and 26 weeks of disability leave at partial pay.

In DC, the Universal Paid Leave Act of 2015 would allow District of Columbia workers to take up to 16 weeks of paid leave, at full pay for those making up to $52,000 annually.

I applaud New York for taking this important step to improve public health, and hope we'll continue seeing more and more workers gain access to paid family and medical leave.

P.S. I wrote this post over the weekend, and then on Tuesday San Francisco's Board of Supervisors approved six weeks of fully paid parental leave. It will require employers to pay the 45% of employees' salaries not covered by the state's paid-leave system. The measure still has to undergo a second vote and be signed by the Mayor.

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