Paid Family Leave: Is New York Leading the Way?
In a speech unveiling his agenda for New York in 2019, Governor Cuomo lauded the state’s paid family leave benefit as the best in the country. Indeed, one year into its implementation, the New York Paid Family Leave Insurance Act has put the opportunity—to take paid time out of work to care for a loved one—within reach for thousands of workers, including many direct care workers employed by home care agencies, nursing homes and other residential facilities, and private clients.
At a time when the topic of paid family leave has moved into the national spotlight, the unique facets of New York’s plan offer a model for how other states can extend this essential protection to workers, including those who can least afford to go without it.
Extending Paid Leave to Paid Caregivers
Home care workers and nursing assistants provide critical services to older adults and people with disabilities across the country, allowing them to carry out daily activities and to live safely and with dignity in their homes and communities. However, direct care workers are often unable to take time off work to care for their own families. For many, the prospect of taking an unpaid leave of absence presents significant risks of financial hardship due to lost wages and/or termination from their jobs.
As of 2019, most of New York’s direct care workforce earns the state’s $15 hourly minimum wage and has the option for paid leave insurance coverage through the new state plan. But across the country, the picture looks very different for a majority of direct care workers. Nationwide, home care workers averaged just $11.03/hour and nursing assistants $12.84/hour in 2017—wages that make it nearly impossible to afford unpaid time out of the workforce.
In our work providing technical assistance to home care employers, PHI has observed that—with unpaid leave as their only option—some workers end up leaving their jobs when they give birth or are met with an emergent need to care for a family member. One New York employer reported to us that, prior to the implementation of Paid Family Leave, family caregiving responsibilities accounted for one quarter of the reasons home health aides gave when resigning. If some of this turnover can be prevented through access to paid leave, it may help stem the growing workforce shortage in direct care.
In New York, More Coverage for More Workers
Last year, my colleague Allison Cook published a series of recommendations to help states design paid leave laws that support workers in direct care and other job sectors with low wages or precarious work schedules. New York Paid Family Leave abides by a number of these recommendations, extending wage replacement and job security to more workers, and at a higher rate than any other state with an active paid leave program.
New York’s policy mandates that paid family leave be provided by all employers, regardless of size, to any employee who has worked for either 26 consecutive weeks at a weekly schedule of 20 or more hours, or 175 days working fewer hours per week. The benefit is funded through employee payroll deductions. In 2019, eligible workers can receive up to 10 weeks of paid leave to care for:
- A newborn, adopted, or fostered child;
- A close relative with a serious illness; or
- Family matters when a member is deployed abroad on active military service.
The employee is paid during those weeks at a rate of 55 percent of the person’s regular weekly earnings or the state’s average weekly wage (so, 55 percent of $1,357.11), whichever is less. By 2021, the wage replacement rate will reach 67 percent and cover 12 weeks.
Only three other states offer paid family leave programs, none of which have as competitive a wage replacement rate and duration of leave as New York’s. Three more states and the District of Columbia are currently implementing laws that will begin paying benefits by 2021, and several additional states are considering legislation to offer paid family leave.
Nationwide, Unequal Access and Momentum for Change
The growing popularity of paid family leave is evident not just among states, but at the federal level: it appeared as an applause line in this month’s State of the Union address and is featured in the platforms of several candidates for the 2020 presidential election.
Access to paid family leave has historically been reserved for a sliver of the American workforce. In 2017, only 13 percent of employers offered this benefit. Among high-paying industries, such as information technology, generous paid leave policies have become a key selling point as companies compete for talent. But just five percent of low-wage workers had access to family leave with any wage replacement before 2018. Women are over-represented in minimum- and other low-wage occupations, including direct care, and in turn are disproportionately impacted by the lack of access to this benefit. Options for unpaid leaves of absence have been better distributed across the workforce, but even these benefits remain harder to access among direct care workers.
This month, the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) turns 26. When the bill was first signed into law in 1993, it represented a significant offering to American workers needing time off work to meet family caregiving or personal health responsibilities without risking their job security. But FMLA leave is unpaid and only accessible to about 60 percent of the workforce: those employed at large organizations and who have been on the job for at least one year working near-full-time hours. Direct care workers are unlikely to receive FMLA protections, since many of them work for small agencies, change employers more frequently, and maintain part-time schedules, often holding multiple jobs to make ends meet.
For direct care workers in New York, the options available to care for one’s family without risking financial and job insecurity may be the best the country has to offer. The United States is one of only three countries worldwide that doesn’t guarantee paid leave for its citizens following the birth of a child—a glaring absence given that caregiving responsibilities for family members of all ages have been associated with negative health and workplace productivity outcomes for the U.S. workforce. As the country takes a renewed interest in paid family leave, state-based policies like New York’s should lead the way.