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.”
“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.
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.
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.
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 New York’s legislation is the most extensive in the nation, something its proponents are quite proud of.
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.”
On the other hand, 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.
“The state’s legislative leaders have made a smart move for New York’s small businesses by passing this legislation,” said Eric Rettig, outreach manager for the Small Business Majority.
“Business owners understand that treating employees well is good for the financial bottom line,” said Laura Ornstein, coordinator of the New York State Sustainable Business Council.
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.”