Earlier this year, the State Assembly passed legislation updating the Temporary Disability program to provide weekly insurance benefits to employees on family leave to care for newborn children, a seriously ill family member, or to address needs related to a family member in military service.
The proposed benefits would be paid for entirely by employees through small payroll deductions, beginning at about 45 cents a week, increasing to about 88 cents a week when the law is fully phased-in over four years. It wouldn’t add a dime to the state’s budget. But the State Senate has failed to act on the bill.
Paid family leave would cover all workers. But working women will likely be the majority to use it. One out of four working women in New York City lives in a low-income household. That’s close to half a million working women struggling to get by with incomes that put their families below twice the federal poverty level, or $37,000 for a family of three. Two-thirds of them are blacks and Latinas.
The need for paid family leave may be rare, but when it happens the consequences can be catastrophic for low-income families. We should not have a system where so many households are dependent on a woman’s income and having a baby means she loses her wages for two or three months or even loses her job.
A Form of Job Security
Paid family leave is a form of job security. If you have a baby, or if your spouse or aging parent has a sudden stroke or heart attack, and you must leave work to deal with these situations, you do not have to worry that you are not going to have a job to come back to. And you are going to have an income that tides you over while you are away from the job. New Yorkers wouldn’t have to choose between the health and well-being of family members and their jobs.
The Community Service Society’s (CSS) annual survey of New Yorkers, “The Unheard Third,” reveals what it means for the economic stability of low-wage workers taking several weeks off from a job to care for a newborn, or a child in intensive care, or a mother who breaks her hip. These workers are not just struggling to balance work and family; they are struggling to survive because New York’s low-income families have essentially no resources to fall back on.
CSS’s survey found that over 40 percent of two-working parent families have less than $500 for an emergency. Over half of low-income working women and two-thirds of single mothers have less than $500. Many of them have zero or are in debt.
So wage replacement is a key part of paid family leave. The version of the legislative bill CSS has been supporting allows for two-thirds wage replacement for those with lower wages. That’s still less than half the statewide average weekly wage.
Research shows that family caregiving is crucial to providing children a healthy start in life and for managing the complex health needs of our aging population. The federal Family and Medical Leave Act provides some help. But its coverage is limited. It omits 40 percent of the workforce and the leave is unpaid.
New York is one of five states with an insurance system already in place that can be used to provide paid family leave. It’s called Temporary Disability Insurance (TDI). Funded through small employer and employee contributions, TDI pro¬vides partial wage replacement when workers experience an off-the-job short term disability, including those related to pregnancy and recovery from childbirth.
Currently, New York’s TDI program provides only five to seven weeks of mea¬ger benefits for recovery from childbirth. And TDI provides no replacement income for bonding and nurturing a newborn, for new dads, or for caring for a se¬riously ill family member. More importantly, because New York has failed to adjust TDI for inflation since 1989, its maximum benefit - $170 per week - has lost more than half of its purchasing power.
Strong Public Support
Over 70 percent of New York State voters favor passing a law to provide paid family leave (based on a Marist poll). California, New Jersey, and Rhode Island have successfully modernized their exist¬ing TDI insurance programs to include paid family leave. New York can do it, too.
Family paid leave won’t pass the Legislature this year. The legislative session is over. But there is an election this fall for governor and state legislators. The candidates should be asked whether they support paid family leave. It took years to get paid sick leave legislation adopted, but now it is a reality for millions of New Yorkers. We can do this for family paid leave as well.