Gov. Cuomo Brings his fight for Paid Family Leave to Harlem

David R. Jones, The Urban Agenda

Harlem was the site of a rally last week led by Gov. Andrew Cuomo and featuring local elected leaders and advocates keenly aware that momentum is building in New York for a statewide policy that would provide job protection and wage replacement for workers who want to take time off to care for a newborn or seriously ill parent or relative.

Simply put, we need paid family leave in New York because the financial security of our working families and their health is at stake.

In New York City alone, nearly 50,000 new mothers a year worked during their pregnancies and then faced the difficult calculus of how long could they afford to take off from work to care for their newborns before facing unpaid bills or risk having no job to return to. Paid family leave is especially critical for new moms to establish breastfeeding, with its enormous health benefits to both mothers and babies, and promoting bonding between mother and child which is critical for early brain development. Research also shows that when new fathers can spend that time with their infants it has lifelong benefits for their involvement with their children.

12 Weeks of Job-Protected Leave

Under the governor’s bill, which is similar to the bill that cleared the State Assembly earlier this month, New York would provide 12 weeks of job-protected leave, covering all workers, with benefits that replace two-thirds of their weekly earnings. Paid family leave would be funded entirely by employees through small weekly paycheck deductions, estimated to be about $1 a week or less.

And public support for paid family leave is off the charts. According to the latest Siena College poll of state registered voters, 80 percent overall support paid family leave, with an even higher approval rate among women (82 percent), and a very respectable percentage of Republicans (69 percent) favoring it. In New York City, our CSS/Lake Research survey found near universal support among African American women with a whopping 97 percent favoring enacting paid family leave—including 91 percent who strongly favor it.

Despite its bipartisan appeal and the fact that it will not cost employers or the state a dime to implement, opponents of paid leave argue that the governor’s plan would “place an undue burden on businesses.”  Really? Those predictions did not materialize in California, New Jersey and Rhode Island where paid family leave laws are on the books.

The truth is, with the insurance entirely employee-funded critics of paid family leave in New York are left to make their stand against it strictly on ideological grounds. 

We can only hope that business sense wins out over ideology. Because, if businesses don’t have to pay the wages of employees on leave that money can be used to increase the hours of other workers, or hire a temporary replacement if needed.  In fact, paid leave can help New York’s businesses be competitive in attracting the best employees.  And when workers feel they are treated well by their employers, they return to work highly motivated and grateful for having had the time they needed to meet important family responsibilities.

Lack of Guaranteed Paid Leave Harms Black and Latino Working Mothers the Most

“This is about a fight for basic fairness in this state,” Gov. Cuomo said last week from inside New York City Mission Society’s headquarters on Malcolm X Boulevard. He was speaking of the many low-income New Yorkers, indeed many residents of that very Harlem community, who cannot afford to take time off from work to be a caregiver to a family member.

During his January State of the State address, the governor urged lawmakers to pass paid family leave now. Last week in Harlem, the governor was the voice of low-wage working women – primarily blacks and Latinos – for whom the lack of guaranteed paid leave falls the heaviest on.  Just last year my organization released a report on paid family leave called “A Necessity, Not a Benefit,” which found that low-income working mothers often have to rush back to their jobs when their infants are only a few weeks old because they cannot survive without a paycheck.

“African-American women have the highest risk of maternal morbidity in pregnancy, [such as hypertension, diabetes, prematurity and obesity],” said Dr. Laura Riley, President of the Society for Maternal-Fetal Medicine and Director of labor and delivery at Massachusetts General Hospital, in quote from a February Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) article. “And who is going back to work the soonest?  African-American women. If they don’t, they don’t have a job. It’s one huge painful cycle.”

With the help of the governor, and the state legislature, we’ll bring that “painful cycle” to an end.

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