Advocates for bringing U.S. policy in line with a modern workforce — where all parents work in more than 60 percent of households with children – are turning up the heat on New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo (D).
In the United States, the only advanced country with no paid parental leave policy and no congressional action on the issue since 1992, states are the key battleground for both advocates and President Obama, who has set aside $1.5 million in the past year to help states develop their own paid leave programs.
Lawmakers in California, New Jersey and Rhode Island have passed statewide paid leave laws. New York, advocates expected, would be next.
Both Republicans and Democrats in New York’s state Assembly have already put forward paid leave proposals. Yet Cuomo, who in 2013 pushed a Women’s Equality Act, dampened hope for movement recently, saying lawmakers lacked “the appetite” to consider a paid leave proposal this year.
“You want to talk about a single thing that can help women economically it’s going to be the minimum wage,” Cuomo told reporters recently. “Beyond any supplement — insurance supplement or vacation supplement — just raising the wage, so that’s probably the simplest cleanest way to do it.”
But women’s groups disagree. In a Monday letter, prominent women and advocates from nearly 20 national organizations sent Cuomo a pointed letter to take action.
“Pitting paid family leave against an agenda for women’s equality is like saying we can’t build bridges because we need to build roads,” the letter says. “In fact, the lack of paid family leave is a key contributor to women’s lower pay and inequality. The glass ceiling is held in place by thick maternal walls.”
The Monday letter follows another signed by more than 56 women leaders in the state and delivered to Cuomo late last week, arguing that the “time for the issue has come,” the New York Times reported.
Ellen Bravo, executive director of Family Values @ Work, called Cuomo’s sidestepping paid leave “misguided.”
“To narrow this issue as one that only affects women is really short-sighted,” she said. “It’s also about men who want to bond with their children, and the about the wellbeing of parents, seniors and children.
“This is a doable thing,” she added. “New York should be next.”
The three states with paid leave programs were three of five that have existing Temporary Disability Insurance funds that all workers pay into. All three simply expanded the insurance programs to include paid leave. All three programs are solely employee-funded. No employer nor state funds pay for the paid family and medical leave.
New York and Hawaii are the only two other states with existing TDI programs. Obama, in his fiscal 2016 budget, is proposing $2.2 billion in funding to reimburse states’ administrative costs for three years, and $35 million in grants to help states without TDI programs build infrastructure for paid leave.
In 1992, Congress passed the Family and Medical Leave Act, which gives workers up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave a year to care for newborn, adopted or foster children, or for sick relatives, or recover themselves from an illness. A recent Department of Labor survey found that the law does not cover 40 percent of the workforce.
“Legislating [paid] leave policy will level the playing field, as it is difficult to compete against businesses that do not provide leave benefits,” Margot Dorfman, CEO of the U.S. Women’s Chamber of Commerce, said in an e-mail. “It is vital to the continued success and growth of our economy that we take measures to keep women in the workforce.”
In their letter, advocates pointed to studies of the California paid leave law that found, despite initial opposition from the business community, the vast majority of business leaders say the law, passed in 2002, has had a positive or neutral effect, that women with paid leaves are breastfeeding longer, and are more likely to return to work.
“Data shows that when workers have access to the paid benefits they need, they are more productive, loyalty increases, turnover is reduced, and, in turn, businesses benefit,” Elizabeth Shuler, secretary-treasurer of the AFL-CIO, said in an e-mail.
Kristin Rowe-Finkbeiner, executive director of MomsRising, said her organization has more than 1 million members nationally from across the political spectrum.
“It’s incredibly frustrating to have any governor say there isn’t an appetite for policies like paid family leave, it’s really so out of touch,” she said. “What we’re working on, with this letter, and with our ongoing campaign, is making sure that every leader knows we have a modern labor force, a modern economy. Times have changed. And it’s time for our policies to catch up with that change. The appetite is more than there.”