Why cities and states are taking lead on paid family leave

New York's governor, who last year said there was 'little appetite' for paid family leave, this week urged his state to pass a measure. While the issue remains a nonstarter in Congress, a growing number of cities and states are stepping in.

Mike Groll/AP
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) delivers his State of the State address at the Empire State Plaza Convention Center on Wednesday in Albany.

When New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) urged state lawmakers to pass a paid family leave bill during his State of the State address on Wednesday, the governor known more for his pitbull political tactics became unusually personal.

"Life is such a precious gift, and I have kicked myself every day that I didn't spend more time with my father at that end period," the governor said of his late father, former Gov. Mario Cuomo, who died a year ago on New Year’s Day. “I'm lucky – I could've taken off work, I could've cut days in half, I could've spent more time with him. It was my mistake, and a mistake I blame myself for every day.”

But most New Yorkers don’t have that option, the governor noted as he asked members of the state Assembly and Senate to pass a bill ensuring that residents could take off work for up to 12 weeks, with partial pay, to care for sick family members or a newborn child. Governor Cuomo added that the United States is virtually alone as a country that doesn’t guarantee such paid leave for its citizens.

And while the idea has long been a nonstarter in Congress, the New York governor’s emotion-laden proposal comes at time when more states and cities are taking action, many advocates say. If passed, New York would become the fourth state in the country – along with California, New Jersey, and Rhode Island – to institute some form of a paid family leave law.

“Certainly there’s a momentum growing for paid family leave across the country,” says Vivien Labaton, co-executive director of Make it Work, a family advocacy group that supports such bills. “And the most recent development in New York is just one more example of that.”

Part of the new momentum, many say, is a shift in priorities for many American workers, especially among a new generation of employees that is now placing a greater emphasis on time with family.

“Even business are now competing with each other, because they know that Millennials care a lot about this – men as well as women,” says Ellen Bravo, executive director of Family Values @ Work, a national network of 21 state and local coalitions advocating for a more family-friendly workplace. “Governor Cuomo's remarks didn’t come out of the blue – there’s a robust, very broad and very diverse coalition” fighting for paid family leave, she says.

Early last year, Cuomo had said that there was little “appetite” for a paid family leave bill in Albany, prompting 56 women from across the state to write the governor and say New Yorkers were, in fact, “quite hungry for paid family leave and the economic security it would bring to our communities and our families.”

Tech behemoths such as Facebook, Microsoft, and Apple have revised their paid parental leave policies in recent years to attract and retain talent. In August, Netflix announced it would give employees up to a year of paid parental leave, and in November, the music-streaming company Spotify announced it would give its global employees six months paid leave.  

Still, only about 12 percent of US workers receive any kind of paid family leave, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. And small business leaders have continued to argue that such policies would devastate companies with far fewer employees than the tech titans.

“In a year where small business is fighting a disastrous minimum wage proposal, the thought of government mandating a paid leave requirement speaks to the larger narrative that the governor is clearly threatening the viability of small business in New York,” said Mike Durant, state director of the National Federation of Independent Businesses, according to the Albany Business Review.

On Thursday, the D.C. Council held the second of three hearings on the paid family leave proposal introduced in October, and members were expected to debate the bill’s employer tax provision, which would create a fund for leave benefits.

The nitty-gritties of the New York proposal remain forthcoming, and some have suggested an employee-funded program to help secure the support of Republicans, who control the New York state Senate.  

Advocates, however, say that the experience of states like California and New Jersey have indicated that such family leave laws do not hamper businesses. In fact, they say, employers and employees both benefit from this cost of doing business.  

“So we’re really changing the conversation from, ‘Will these family leave plans unintentionally harm business?’ to ‘What does it cost not to do it?’ ” says Ms. Bravo.

Families with paid leave not only are able to still contribute to the nation’s economic well being, advocates say, other “intended consequences” of such plans include raising people’s income, reducing infant mortality, and increasing the involvement of dads in child rearing.

And these shifting family values, many say, are at the heart of the new momentum for such proposals. “There is data that shows Millennials, both men and women, have higher expectations around gender equality, and both men's and women's role both at home and in the workplace,” says Ms. Labaton about the growing political popularity of such proposals, and the emphasis on family.

“At the end of the day, family matters. Intimate relationships matter,” Cuomo said on Wednesday. “And in this 24/7 world, let this state make a statement about what's really important. And those relations are important. And we should be there for one and another, especially in a family environment.”

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