Testimony of Nancy Rankin, Vice President for Policy Research and Advocacy
Before the New York State Workforce Development Budget Hearing
Thank you for the opportunity to testify today in support of a strong and affordable paid family leave program for all New Yorkers.
My name is Nancy Rankin. I am Vice President for Policy Research at the Community Service Society of New York, a nonprofit organization that works to advance upward mobility for low-income New Yorkers. Today, CSS continues its 172-year legacy of using rigorous research to drive changes in public policy to reduce poverty and economic inequality. I am also a member of the Steering Committee of the New York Paid Family Leave Insurance Campaign and Chair the Board of the New York Paid Leave Coalition.
We thank the Assembly and those in the Senate who have championed paid family leave and conducted thoughtful hearings. And we are very pleased that Governor Cuomo has made paid family leave a priority in his executive budget.
When my 93-year old mother had hip replacement surgery a few years ago, I took off what I thought would be a week or so to get her through the operation and into rehab. Shortly after I returned to work, a wheel chair fell on her in the rehab facility, breaking three of her ribs, which set off a frightening downward spiral. I didn’t know whether she would survive. In pain and immobile, she needed me to arrange transfers between medical facilities, to communicate among the doctors, advocate for her needs, keep her bills at home paid and provide moral support. My boss said, “Nancy take the time you need.” I was fortunate. And today my mom has recovered and is 96. All workers need the opportunity I had.
Any of us at some point may need paid family leave. Whether it is to care for a newborn, an aging parent who suddenly suffers a stroke, a spouse diagnosed with cancer or a child injured in a devastating accident – these life events affect all of us. For that reason, paid family leave should cover all employees, regardless of business size. That’s the role of government, to protect all of us, not just some of us, and to create a level playing field for all employers, not just some. Spreading the costs by using social insurance is precisely what makes the program affordable to all employers and all workers.
We would not want small businesses to be unable to compete for good workers because they could not offer paid family leave. Moreover, failing to cover smaller firms would leave out a vast number of New Yorkers. For example, 2 million workers, or 31 percent of private sector employees statewide, are employed by firms with fewer than 25 workers. (Source: CSS calculations using the March 2010 CPS to determine share of workers by employer size, and the March 2014 CPS for current employment. Analysis excludes self-employed who are not covered by TDI.)
Since workers will be getting insurance benefits while on leave, and not paid by their employers, businesses can use that money to increase the hours of another worker or even hire a temporary replacement without adding labor costs.
Paid family leave should be 12 weeks. Dr. Benard Dreyer, President of the American Academy of Pediatrics and head of Pediatrics at Bellevue Hospital Center in NYC, has said 12 weeks is a very modest, minimum amount of time, especially for new mothers. It increases initiation and duration of breastfeeding with its critical impact on bonding, stimulating brain development and strengthening the immune system. It will decrease maternal depression with its harmful effects on children. It is especially important for premature babies. And when fathers are able to take paid leave, it makes a big difference for their lifelong engagement with their children. In other states with paid family leave, more than 80 percent of claims are for parental leave. Most workers using leave to care for a seriously ill family member will not take 12 weeks, but it is essential for those who do need it. Some opponents have voiced fears that workers will try to game the system. But it’s very hard to survive on less than a full paycheck. So that will be a strong check against overuse. And in fact, studies show abuse has not been a problem in states with paid family leave.
In New York City, where my organization is based, one out of four working women lives in a low-income household. That’s close to half a million working women, struggling to get by on less than $38,000 for a family of three. Almost two-thirds of them are black or Latina. Their jobs and earnings are essential for keeping their families afloat. These same workers are the customers of neighborhood businesses, so sustaining their employment through normal life events keeps Main Street growing.
Low-paid workers are unable to save anything from their inadequate wages to sustain themselves and their families for days, much less weeks, without a paycheck. According to CSS’s 2015 annual Unheard Third survey, over half of low-income working mothers in New York City have less than $500 in savings. Over a third of these moms don’t even have $100. With no cushion to fall back on, low-wage workers cannot survive on half their weekly wage. And it is unfair to ask them to contribute money from their meager paychecks each week for a benefit so low they will not be able to afford to actually use it. We must have a benefit that replaces two-thirds of weekly wages for low-income workers from the start.
Job security is also essential. Both the Governor’s proposal and the Nolan and Addabbo bills agree on this point. What good is the promise of a few weeks of benefits if you have no job to return to? Workers taking leave to care for an older spouse or aging parent are likely to be in their late fifties or sixties. If they lose their jobs, what are their prospects of finding a new one? Research shows new mothers are more likely to return to work and remain attached to the labor force when they have paid family leave. This raises women’s lifetime earnings and reduces use of public benefits.
Modernizing our existing Temporary Disability Insurance system is a smart, affordable, self-sustaining way to provide paid family leave. Ideally, we should also raise the benefit level for a worker’s own medical disability under TDI. Frozen at $170 since 1989, New York’s disability benefits lag dramatically below every other TDI state.
We see a rising intensity of public support for paid family leave and a growing consensus on what’s needed. CSS’s 2015 survey found that eight out of 10 city residents are willing to have a dollar a week deducted from their paychecks in order to get paid family leave— including 83 percent of low-income private sector workers. A Siena College poll released just this week showed that eight out of ten New York voters—from every party and every region of the state—want to see 12 weeks of job-protected paid family leave become a reality.
Paid Family Leave is an idea whose time has come.