Accumulated debt, poor health, depression and stress common experiences among working mothers who prematurely re-enter labor force
As lawmakers debate whether to make New York the latest state to modernize its workforce laws to include paid family leave, a new report from the Community Service Society (CSS) seeks to move the discussion beyond the usual political considerations to the actual risks and consequences by examining how the lives of low-income working women are affected by the lack of guaranteed paid family leave.
The report, A Necessity, Not a Benefit; NYC’s Low-income Moms Discuss Their Struggles Without Paid Family Leave and Job Security, is based on focus group research with low-income working moms in New York City who didn’t have paid family leave. In all cases the focus group participants had worked during their pregnancies and given birth within the past 12 months. All of them experienced financial hardship and anxiety about holding on to their jobs, forcing them to return to work quickly, some when their infants were just two to three weeks old.
For example, one focus group participant, who makes $12 an hour in retail, was still in the hospital recovering with her newborn daughter when her employer began asking her when she would return to work. Despite her doctor’s advice that she take off at least six weeks, the 28-year old mother returned to work after using one week of vacation time and 10 unpaid days: “I had no choice,” said the woman who is employed by a Manhattan boutique. “If I didn’t go back to work, I would have had to go on welfare. I might have become homeless. It was really hard leaving my infant with a stranger.”
In New York City alone, 50,000 women are employed during their pregnancies each year. One out of four of the city’s working women live in low-income households. Nearly half of low-income working moms in New York City surveyed by CSS have $500 or less to fall back on in an emergency. The report found that many working mothers rush back to their jobs when their infants are only a few weeks old because they cannot survive without a paycheck. As result, they place their own health at risk as well as jeopardize the development of their babies. Employers also suffer by losing dedicated and experienced workers.
“The lack of paid family leave in New York is taking a human and economic toll on working families,” said David R. Jones, CSS President and CEO. “But New York can do something about it. The State Assembly has passed a paid family leave bill and the State Senate included it in their budget priorities. Before lawmakers go home in June they need to act, and pass paid family leave legislation so that New Yorkers won’t have to choose between the health of their families and their ability to make ends meet.”
New York is one of five states with a Temporary Disability Insurance (TDI) system already in place that can be used to provide paid family leave. The Paid Family Leave Insurance Act (A.3870/S.3004) passed the State Assembly in March and is currently being considered in the State Senate. It would modify existing law to provide up to 12 weeks of job-protected leave to help replace lost income when workers take time off to care for a new child, a seriously ill family member or attend to needs related to a family member’s military deployment.
California, New Jersey and Rhode Island have successfully modernized their existing TDI systems to include paid family leave. Critics claim that paid family leave will be bad for business. However, California’s experience suggests just the opposite. Representative surveys of employers in California found that a large majority reported no cost increases as a result of paid family leave. That’s attributed to the fact that employers are not paying the person on leave. Money that went to pay the salary of the person on leave can therefore be applied to hire a temporary worker or give another employee more hours.
Under the State Assembly bill, benefits would be set at two-thirds of an employee’s own average weekly wage up to a cap of about $600 a week and funded entirely by employees through a small weekly payroll deduction of 45 cents a week, rising to an estimated 88 cents a week when the program is fully phased in. There is no additional cost to the state budget.
Nancy Rankin, the report’s co-author and CSS Vice President of Policy Research and Advocacy, said the primary goal behind the report was to illustrate the high stakes for low-income working women if paid family leave is not enacted.
“For higher income and professional women, having a baby can mean a big career setback and loss of earnings. But I don’t think people realize the starkness of the choices facing these low-income working moms,” said Nancy Rankin, who also serves on the New York Paid Family Leave Insurance Campaign steering committee. “It’s unconscionable that we subject low-income working mothers in New York to this cycle of physical and emotional distress just because they chose to have a baby. We need to change that.”
The focus groups were conducted in March and April with a total of 21 participants broken into three groups. Half of each group consisted of women living at or below the poverty level and half between poverty and twice the poverty level. For example, according to the 2014 U.S. Census, the poverty level for a family of three is $18,853. Twice the poverty level would be $37,706.
Half of the focus group participants in each group worked for companies with fewer than 50 employees and half with companies with 50 or more employees. The study also revealed that despite being employed by major, well-known companies in some cases, virtually none of the women in the focus groups were informed about benefits and protections they do have (e.g., TDI, NYC Pregnant Workers Fairness Act and the Federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA).
The report makes the following recommendations:
The State Senate and the Governor should act now to modernize our Temporary Disability Insurance program to provide up to 12 weeks of job-protected paid family leave.
All levels of government should step up outreach, education and enforcement of laws designed to protect the rights of workers during pregnancy and recovering from childbirth, and those needing to care for a new child or seriously ill family member.