Times Have Changed but the Workplace Hasn’t

Nancy Rankin

When a couple of well-known sportscasters let loose a tirade of criticism of Mets second baseman Daniel Murphy for missing two opening games in order to be present for the birth of his first child, it set off a fierce backlash of public opinion.  The commentators were widely denounced as dinosaurs, completely out of touch with the pressures on today's working families. Fortunately, our State Assembly gets it.

Back in March the Assembly passed legislation updating our Temporary Disability program to provide weekly insurance benefits to employees on family leave to care for newborn children, a seriously ill family member or address needs related to a family member's military service. To be sure, the legislation was as much about acknowledging our changing workforce as it was the government's role in addressing large societal problems. Simply put, today's working women and men need time to care for a new baby, a dying parent, or a family member dealing with devastating illness or injury.

The proposed benefits would be paid for entirely by employees through small payroll deductions. Estimates put the cost at just 45 cents a week to start, and then rising to about 88 cents a week when the law is fully phased-in over four years. Unfortunately, the State Senate and Governor Cuomo have so far failed to act.

That's a shame. Especially when you consider that the state budget approved earlier this month offered plenty for business this election year. Albany reduced the state's corporate income tax rate, decreased taxes for manufacturers and cut taxes for big Wall Street banks. But on the crucial question of providing real help to working families by extending paid family leave and adequate benefits, New York came up short.

If they fail to take up the Senate version of the Assembly bill, state lawmakers and the governor are essentially signaling their satisfaction with an antiquated system that lags behind other states. And New York will miss an opportunity to modernize its workforce laws and give 7.5 million private sector workers peace of mind knowing paid family leave will be there if and when they need it.

New York Lags Behind Other States

Loss of income or a job can take a huge financial toll on families who need to take time off for family needs. Though the federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) enables some workers to take leave, it doesn't cover 40 percent of the workforce. Moreover, because it is unpaid, the FMLA is little help to most New Yorkers who can't afford to go weeks without a paycheck.

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 premium contributions, TDI provides 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 meager benefits for recovery from childbirth. However, TDI provides no replacement income for bonding and nurturing a newborn, for new dads, or for caring for a seriously ill family member. More importantly, because New York has failed to adjust TDI for inflation since 1989, the maximum benefit ($170 per week) has lost more than half of its purchasing power. In fact, New York's TDI is dramatically below that of every other TDI state where the maximum weekly benefits average $742. The bill passed by the Assembly would also gradually allow state disability benefits to catch up with rising costs of living.

California, New Jersey and Rhode Island have successfully modernized their existing TDI insurance programs to include paid family leave. It's not too late for the state to help working families and not add one dime to the budget. When lawmakers return this month to Albany, a top priority should be sending a paid family leave bill to the governor.


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