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Will the Latest Push for Paid Family Leave in New York Succeed?

Sharon Lerner

Yesterday, the New York State Assembly voted overwhelmingly in support of paid family leave legislation. The bill was part of a package put forward by Assembly speaker, Sheldon Silver. And with its 84-40 passage, the old idea of providing workers paid time off to care for sick relatives or a new baby entered a new phase. Now, with Silver’s bill and another introduced by Sen. Jeff Klein, leader of the four-member Independent Democratic Conference, in February, New York has not one, but two competing proposals for this long-ignored policy solution.

The advantages of having paid leave – as opposed to the unpaid leave, which the federal Family and Medical Leave Act provides 12 weeks of - are clear. We know not only that the FMLA doesn’t apply to some 40 percent of workers but also that many of those who are covered can’t afford to take the unpaid time off. As a result, many new mothers wind up returning to work well before the 12 weeks many of us think of as standard maternity leave. In fact, according to the most recent census numbers, more than a quarter are at work within two months of giving birth and one in 10—more than half a million women each year—go back to their jobs in four weeks or less.

And we know that paid leave is good for families. In California, where paid family and medical leave has been in effect for 10 years, the law has increased fathers’ involvement of the care of their babies. In Europe, where many countries provide upwards of six months of leave, increased paid leave has not just improved children’s health but also, according to a 2000 study in the Journal of Health Economics, saved lives.

But, while there’s been broad agreement about the benefits of paid leave for workers and their families, we’ve made little progress toward making it available. The U.S. remains one of a tiny handful of countries not to guarantee paid leave to new mothers. On the state front, only California, New Jersey and, most recently, Rhode Island, have managed to create their own programs.

Critically, like these other states, New York already has a temporary disability insurance system in place that would make paid family leave relatively easy to implement. But New York has tried – and failed – in the past to institute its own paid leave program. A bill was first introduced in the state Legislature in 2000 and passed through the Assembly in both 2005 and 2007, only to be blocked in the Republican-controlled Senate. The proposal regained momentum when Governor Spitzer championed it in 2007, but his resignation in 2008 brought it to a standstill once more. Two years later, paid leave supporters again saw their hopes rise and fall, when Democrats took control of the Senate, only to have two Democrats lead a coup to return power to the Republicans.

Whether this latest wave of enthusiasm will be the one that finally gets New York to provide paid time off will depend on Albany politics. Already, the two Democrats, Silver and Klein, have done some mild sparring over the differences in their proposals. (Klein’s would grant workers half of their weekly wage for six weeks, while Silver’s would do the same for 12 weeks – and Silver’s bill would be funded by a 45-cent per-paycheck from workers, while Klein’s would be paid for, at first, by the state’s general fund and then employee contributions.)

As the bill goes to the Republican-controlled Senate, one hopes they’re committed enough to helping working families to get past their differences.