While federal law provides some job protection for workers using family leave, its coverage is neither paid nor universal nor well understood, advocates say.


While federal law provides some job protection for workers using family leave, its coverage is neither paid nor universal nor well understood, advocates say.

When Inneshia Hart had her first child at age 20 and her household consisted only of her husband and the new baby girl and her, she had the luxury to stay home for as long as she chose. But when her son was born three years later, they had greater expenses. “The worries started about two weeks after I had my son,” says Hart. “The bills started coming in and I thought, ‘We cannot live like this.'”

By then, her mother had come from Belize to stay with them in their one-bedroom apartment in East Flatbush, Brooklyn, and she and her husband paid $135 a week for their daughter’s pre-K because they earned just above the maximum allowed for free schooling. So three weeks after her son was born, Hart returned to work as a home health aide, working five days a week for 12hours a day as well as every other weekend and earning $7.60 an hour.

“At first I felt like I could do it,” recalls Hart. “I just put my mind to it and I went back. But two days later I felt weak and dizzy. My lower section felt heavy. My son wasn’t up yet by the time I left for work and he was asleep by the time I got back.” The different experiences are reflected in her relationship with her children: Hart’s daughter is mommy’s girl, but her son has that bond with his grandma. “Sometimes I get him to lie down with us at night, but when the lights are closed he says, ‘Mommy, I want to go to grandma.'”

A newly released report by the Community Service Society on the experiences of low-income working women who returned to work within weeks of giving birth found that nearly half the women surveyed said they had less than $500 in savings, while over a quarter had no savings at all.

This March, a bill passed the New York State Assembly that would increase payroll taxes by under a dollar a week for all New Yorkers in order to allow mothers and fathers to take up to 12 weeks of paid leave after a baby is born. The legislation would also provide up to 12 weeks of paid leave for workers to care for a seriously ill family member or attend to needs related to a family member’s military deployment. The bill’s sponsor in the State Senate, Joseph Addabbo, says he hopes to bring a vote on the legislation before the session is out or in the next session.

Advocates say that creating such a system in New York would be easier than in many other states, since New York already has a payroll tax that provides workers injured off the job with Temporary Disability Insurance. An expansion of this program, they say, starting with a 45-cent-a-week additional contribution by workers at the start of the program and going up to 88 cents a week after the program is fully phased in, would allow for paid family leave to go quickly into effect.

While the bill would guarantee paid family leave for all working parents, low-income parents are likely to benefit the most. The new legislation would provide workers with 2/3rds of their salaries.

“What we found was that these low-income new moms were driven to return to work so soon after giving birth because of serious financial hardships or because they were worried about losing their jobs,” says Nancy Rankin, the author of the CSS report. “What they mainly seemed to be missing was clarity. There seemed to be no clear policies about whether they’d receive any paid maternity leave or whether their jobs would be held for them.”

One mother interviewed by CSS who planned to take a month off returned after a week after she’d used up all her vacation days, while another mother expressed uncertainty about her employment status: “They made me train someone else,” she told CSS, “so I think they are letting me go.” Many mothers said that job security was even more important to them than the length of paid leave such legislation might provide. While federal law provides some job protection for workers using family leave, its coverage is neither universal nor well understood.

Three states have passed similar legislation: California, New Jersey and Rhode Island. In the past decade, similar bills have failed to pass in New York State. But advocates say they believe paid family leave is an idea whose time has come. Recently, much attention has been paid to the fact that around the world, only two of 185 countries surveyed by the International Labor Organization fail to provide parents with any guaranteed paid family leave: the United States and Papua New Guinea.

In his State of the Union address, the president called on states to take the lead in passing paid family leave legislation and when Mayor De Blasio went to Washington to launch his progressive agenda, paid family leave was on the list of reforms. This past mother’s day, both Hillary Clinton and John Oliver made paid family leave the focus of their attention.

Perhaps even more significant than the ILO’s findings is a 2013 study of California businesses which found that overwhelmingly, businesses were not hurt by California’s paid family leave legislation, which was passed more than a decade ago. California’s program offers only six weeks of paid family leave, as opposed to New York’s proposed 12. Nonetheless, bitter debates about the debilitating impact the legislation might have on businesses ensued before its passage. In the 2013 study, however, 87 percent of California businesses reported no increased cost to them from the program while 9 percent said they saved money because of decreased turnover and benefit payments. “If you ask the authors of the study,” says Rankin, “they’ll tell you the legislation was a non-event for business.”

In a state Senate hearing on paid family leave this March, representatives of the New York State Business Council and the National Federation of Independent Businesses argued that state-sponsored paid family leave would be another mandate that restricted the ability of businesses to flexibly respond to the demands of the market, and could hurt job growth. They raised concerns as well about how paid family leave legislation, if passed, would be combined with paid family leave that some businesses already provide and with the 12 weeks of unpaid family leave guaranteed by the Federal Family Medical Leave Act for businesses employing more than 50 people. Lastly, they raised concerns about whether the current proposal, while modest, would continue to grow and become more burdensome to businesses.

Despite these concerns, many on the right are supportive of the passage of some type of paid family leave legislation, in part because paid family leave has also been shown to benefit the economy and decrease the wage gap between men and women. Women who took paid family leave were more likely to be working 9 to 12 months after a baby was born, according to a report by the Rutgers Center for Women and Work. They were also 54 percent more likely to report wage increases within that first year and 39 percent less likely to receive public assistance than mothers who did not take paid leave, after controlling for demographic factors.

“Studies suggest that there are positive health impacts for the mother and the child when women are able to take maternity leave and stay home with the child the first few weeks. It is also good since women are able to return to jobs and stay in the workforce,” Aparna Mathur, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, tells City Limits. Mathur echoes concerns that such programs would grow larger than their original mandates and make businesses reluctant to hire women. She proposed, instead, the use of existing tax-credit programs to provide paid family leave. Nonetheless, she said that on the face of it, the New York legislation looked like a positive step forward: “As long as the costs are really this low, there should be few if any adverse impacts.”

Kay Hymowitz of the Manhattan Institute says she believed that for bigger businesses, the advantages of state-sponsored paid family leave might indeed outweigh the disadvantages, but she worried about the impact on small businesses and in particular, about the length of New York’s proposed paid leave on smaller firms.

But Addabbo says he is reluctant to cut workers in smaller businesses out of the legislation. “We’re trying to alleviate any kind of burden on small businesses,” Addabbo says. “But it’s important to remember that there’s money being saved here because the company is not paying the worker’s salary while they’re on leave,” he added. “We continue to work with the small business councils to see if we can come to some agreement. We want them to weigh in on it. They acknowledge there’s momentum for this legislation. They acknowledge that it’s coming down the pike.”

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