The lack of a cohesive paid family leave policy has meant that many people taking care of ailing parents, as well as those with sick children, those facing illness themselves, those with a deployed spouse and parents expecting or adopting a baby, have had to either leave their jobs or work through family crises to avoid missed pay. (Pixabay)
By Sarah Hall
When Nicole Gibson’s mother was diagnosed with a brain tumor, there was no question in her mind that she and her two brothers would make whatever sacrifice necessary to take care of her.
“If I have to put my life on hold to take care of the woman who took care of me for all of my 30-some years, that’s okay,” Gibson said. “We’re a very close-knit family, and it was not an option to put her in a home. It was a family decision we all made together.”
However, those sacrifices ended up being pretty substantial. At first, Gibson’s mother was able to move in with her brother, whose job was flexible enough that he was able to be home with her during the day. When he had to change jobs, Gibson, of Syracuse, volunteered to take over. As her mother’s illness stretched on, Gibson used up all of her sick time and paid time off. She applied for FMLA leave and took 12 weeks of unpaid time off. Ultimately, she had to leave her job.
“We made the decision that it was best for my family for me to leave my job,” Gibson said. “There were only two circumstances under which I was coming back to work — if some miracle happened and my mom got better, or she would see her last days and we would lay her to rest. And that’s what happened. I ended up being out of work for six months.”
Gibson, a single mother to an 8-year-old son, had to give up her apartment and move in with her mother. She relied on family members to help pay her bills. While she has no regrets — “Making the choice to walk away from my job, to do what was best for my mom, was not hard. This is my mother,” she said. “She passed away in her home, and that’s what she wanted”— the situation certainly presented a financial hardship.
“I’m a single parent. I have an 8-year-old to take care of,” she said. “At the end of the day, I didn’t know I’d have a job to go back to. We’re very fortunate that we have a lot of support from our family.”
In the end, because she worked for a caring company that was able and willing to hold her job for her, Gibson returned to work at ACR Health after her mother’s passing. But millions of others statewide have not been nearly as lucky. The lack of a cohesive paid family leave policy has meant that many people taking care of ailing parents, as well as those with sick children, those facing illness themselves, those with a deployed spouse and parents expecting or adopting a baby, have had to either leave their jobs or work through family crises to avoid missed pay.
But that’s all about to change. New York finally passed its paid family leave policy as part of the 2016-17 budget; the state has been trying to enact such a policy since 2009. The proposal had the overwhelming support of New Yorkers; according to a poll released by the Siena Research Institute Feb. 1, 80 percent of New York voters supported paid family leave, while 18 percent were opposed and 2 percent were undecided.
New York’s policy
New York’s bill will provide workers with up to 12 weeks of leave in order to bond with a new child (including adopted and foster children); care for a seriously ill child, parent, parent-in-law, spouse, domestic partner, grandchild, or grandparent; or address certain military family needs. The policy applies to both men and women. It will be phased in gradually; in 2018, workers will be eligible for up to eight weeks of leave; up to 10 in 2019 and 2020; and up to 12 in 2021 and thereafter. The program applies to all businesses, no matter the size, and includes job protection. Both full- and part-time employees are eligible after working for a company for six months.
The program will be funded through a small employee payroll deduction (roughly a dollar a week). In 2018, a worker will receive 50 percent of his or her average weekly wages up to a cap equal to 50 percent of the statewide average weekly wage, which was $1,266.44 in 2014. The payout will increase over the next three years to 67 percent (approximately 2/3) of the worker’s average weekly wages, up to a cap of 67 percent of the statewide average weekly wage.
New York is the fourth state in the nation to enact a paid family leave policy, though other states’ aren’t nearly as extensive. California offers up to six weeks of paid leave and has since 2004. New Jersey started offering six weeks in 2009, and Rhode Island began offering four weeks in 2004. Washington also approved a paid leave policy in 2007, but it has not yet put the legislation into practice. In addition, similar legislation has been introduced at the federal level. New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand introduced the Family and Medical Insurance Leave Act (FAMILY Act) in March of 2015, which includes the same provisions as New York’s newly adopted law.
New York’s legislation is the most extensive in the nation, something its proponents are quite proud of.
“Twelve weeks of job-protected paid family leave is a tremendous victory for New York families that will no longer have to choose between paying the bills and caring for a loved one or being there for a new child,” said Eric Williams, director of the New York Paid Family Leave Insurance Campaign. “This policy leads the nation and contains the key components we’ve felt are critical to a paid family leave policy that works for New York workers and the state’s small businesses.”
Mixed reaction from businesses
However, not all New Yorkers are on board with the program. In particular, business groups are concerned about the potential impact on their bottom line.
“We have several reasons for our opposition to these proposals, not the least of which is that we don’t believe it will be strictly employee-funded,” said Zach Hutchins of the Business Council of New York State, the state’s largest business advocacy group. He pointed to the administrative costs of covering leave. “This is a cost that will be borne by businesses. It’s actually right in the governor’s proposal. We have no idea what those will be.”
Hutchins also noted that many New York businesses may already be providing their employees with substantial paid leave time.
“They might not call it paid family leave; maybe they call it sick leave or personal leave. Some offer extended maternity leave or paternity leave,” he said. “They’re doing this because they believe it’s what is necessary to keep their employees happy and to compete for employees in this competitive environment. They’re doing it because they believe it’s the right thing to do.”
While the Business Council has some 2,400 members, it certainly doesn’t speak for all New York businesses. Both the Small Business Majority, an advocacy group for small businesses, and the New York State Sustainable Business Council have spoken in favor of the legislation.
“By implementing a statewide paid leave insurance program, New York is making paid leave a universal practice, which will help level the playing field for small businesses that want to offer this benefit to their employees,” said Eric Rettig, outreach manager for the Small Business Majority. “The state’s legislative leaders have made a smart move for New York’s small businesses by passing this legislation.”
Laura Ornstein, coordinator of the New York State Sustainable Business Council, issued a statement echoing those sentiments.
“By passing a paid family leave program, our state leaders have made NYS a more attractive place to do business,” Ornstein said. “Business owners understand that treating employees well is good for the financial bottom line. Paid family leave will cut costs by reducing turnover and boosting job loyalty and productive since employees will no longer be forced to choose between losing pay or quitting their job to care for a sick family member or showing up to work distracted by their worry for a loved one.”
Research has certainly suggested that paid leave is good for business. A paper by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services found that “flexible workplace initiatives [including a paid leave policy] have resulted in greater worker productivity and reduced turnover.” In 2012, Forbes Magazine advised businesses to embrace paid family leave as a good business practice: “The truth is that we are all potential caregivers. We may not end up having children, but all of us have parents and aging relatives who will very likely at some point require care,” contributor Cali Williams Yost wrote. “I think every card-carrying, profit-oriented capitalist should support paid family leave policy.”
Gibson is certainly a supporter of the policy, although it comes too late to help her.
“I’m glad people are starting to recognize that there are a lot of people working day to day who are providing 24-hour care for a loved one,” she said. “People are making sacrifices for their loved ones, but they still have another life to worry about. It’s great to have a little bit of a cushion and security.”
Sarah Hall is the editor of the Eagle Star-Review and the Baldwinsville Messenger. The 2012 winner of the Syracuse Press Club's Selwyn Kershaw Professional Standards Award, she has been with Eagle Newspapers since 2006. She is a Liverpool native.