Millions Of Workers Just Won The Right To Paid Time To Care For Loved Ones

Activists in support of paid family leave at a rally in New York in March CREDIT: AP PHOTO/SETH WENIG
Activists in support of paid family leave at a rally in New York in March CREDIT: AP PHOTO/SETH WENIG

Virtually all countries besides the United States mandate paid maternity leave, and most developed countries also mandate paid time off for fathers as well. The U.S. stands out from the global field by not guaranteeing any paid time off for the arrival of a new child or the serious illness of a family member.

But the movement to change that at the state and local level just notched two serious victories. And both new laws passed this week push the envelope, mandating benefits that are far more generous that what’s already on the books.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) signed a law on Monday that will make New York the fourth state in the entire country with a paid family program, joining California, Rhode Island, and New Jersey. That alone is notable given that residents of the other 46 states have no guarantee that they’ll get any pay at all if they take time off to care for a new child or a sick relative.

But New York’s law goes significantly further than the ones that already exist. While it will be phased in over a number of years — workers will get eight weeks of paid leave starting in 2018 and then ten weeks starting in 2019 — by 2021 the state will mandate 12 weeks of paid leave. That’s double what workers in California and New Jersey are guaranteed and three times what workers get in Rhode Island.

New York will also guarantee that workers get more pay than under many other paid leave programs and proposals. Once fully implemented in 2021, a worker will get about two-thirds of his normal weekly wages up to a cap that’s set at two-thirds of the average weekly wages in the state — right now, just under $870 a week. By contrast, benefits are capped at $607 in New Jersey and $770 in Rhode Island.

Many workers throughout the country may also take unpaid family leave through the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), which allows someone to take 12 weeks to care for a baby or a relative without risking her job. But because that law only applies to people who work at a business with 50 or more employees and who have been at their employer for at least a year, about 40 percent of the workforce can’t even expect that benefit. New York’s law has few carve-outs: It applies to businesses of all sizes and both full-time and part-time workers.

CREDIT: Dylan Petrohilos
CREDIT: Dylan Petrohilos

New York may have pushed the envelope, but San Francisco just went even further. Building on the state program, the city’s Board of Supervisors passed a law on Tuesday requiring that when employees take their six weeks of paid leave, they get their full paychecks for the entire time, rather than the current 55 percent of pay under state law, with employers paying for the difference between the two. That makes it the first place in the country with fully paid family leave.

Most of the country has no guarantee of paid family leave, and just 12 percent of American workers are offered the benefit from their employers. But the recent flurry of progress is notable given how contentious the issue has been in the past. It took a pitched, nine-year battle just to get the FMLA passed, which was characterized at the time as a crazy idea akin to introducing communism into the country. John Boehner, former congressman from Ohio, called it “another example of yuppie empowerment.”

Slow progress toward paid leave has been made in states since then, and California and New Jersey have been proving grounds to show that such requirements don’t hurt businesses while increasing how much leave people take, particularly for fathers.

Paid family leave has now made its way to Congress with the introduction of the FAMILY Act bill, which would create a national social insurance program that would guarantee most workers 12 weeks of paid leave with a similar payout to New York’s program. President Obama has also called on Congress to pass paid family leave and, in the absence of that happening, for states to pass their own, while the Department of Labor has given cities and states grants to help them study the feasibility and implementation of such requirements. The issue has also played a big role in the presidential race, with Democratic candidates Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders putting forward proposals and many Republicans being made to answer on the issue.