Lack of Paid Family Leave Hurts Low-income Working Mothers of Color

David R. Jones, La Nueva Mayoria / The New Majority

More than fifty thousand women in New York City are employed during their pregnancies each year.

For higher income and professional women, having a baby can mean a big career setback and loss of earnings. But for low-income working moms, the loss of compensation, secure employment, or both can be the beginning of a downward trajectory.  Many of them rush back to their jobs when their infants are just a few weeks old because they cannot survive without a paycheck, or worry that if they take too long they might not have a job to go back to.

A new report released this month by my organization explores 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” found that many of working moms experienced poor health, depression and physical and emotional stress as a result of returning to work prematurely. Establishing a bond with their newborn and any kind of acceptable child care routine was also compromised when mothers felt pressure from employers to return to work too soon after giving birth. Most revealing was the fact that virtually none of the women in the study who were employed by large, well-known companies reported being informed about benefits and protections they do have  (e.g.,  Temporary Disability Insurance (TDI), NYC Pregnant Workers Fairness Act and the Federal Family and Medical Leave Act).

Consider the story Ayana R., one of the working mothers in our study who requested we not use her last name.   She was still in the hospital recovering with her newborn daughter when her employer began asking her when she would return to her $12 an hour job in retail. 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 Ayana 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.”

One in four working women in the city lives in a low-income household at or below twice the federal poverty level. That means making ends meet on less than $38,000 for a family of three. Of these women, two thirds are black and Latina. And nearly half of all low-income working women we surveyed report having less than $500 to fall back on in the case of an emergency.

New York is one of five states with a 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.  So why haven’t New York lawmakers acted?

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. And enacting the measure would not add one dime to the state budget. 

New York is the next logical state to enact paid family leave. Public polls show New Yorkers overwhelmingly support it. All it takes now is for our state legislators to do their job.

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