New York's Paid Family Leave Law Protects Women's Health

Photo: David J Laporte (CC)

By Amie Newman — April 14, 2016

New York just passed the most extensive family leave legislation in the country.  When implemented, starting in 2018, millions of new parents in the state won’t need to choose between their hearts, their health, and their bank account. The new law allows all workers to take up to 12 weeks of (partially) paid leave to care for a new child or an ailing parent. That’s twice as much time as families receive in any other state that offers family leave.

Though New York is the fourth state to offer a form of paid parental leave, it’s a major step forward on the path toward improving economic protections for women and families that will hopefully serve as a model for other states.

The law is being touted as generous and it is — in relation to federal family leave policies, which provide exactly zero paid leave benefits to families, but allow for up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave for some employees.

In the United States, one in four new mothers goes back to work within two weeks of giving birth. That’s not only unjust. It’s potentially physically harmful. Rewire reported last year on new mother Elle Kay (not her real name) who, because of her financial situation, had to go back to work after just three weeks leave. Kay was terrified of bleeding all over her office chair because she had suffered a third degree tear during childbirth. Postpartum hemorrhage is a leading cause of death in the United States, during or after childbirth. It is unfair to put new mothers in these situations.

Without paid leave, it’s most often low-income women who do not have the “luxury” of recovering from childbirth or caring for a sick newborn. They are forced to balance their own health needs, the needs of their babies, and the financial urgency brought on by a lack of paid leave.

Higher rates of postpartum depression and higher rates of infant mortality among low-income women are more easily understood when you realize how few low-income women are actually able to take family leave time after the birth of a baby. According to Paid Family Leave California, new mothers who are able to take leave after the birth of their baby experience lower rates of postpartum depression.

The United States is the only developed country in the world, and one of only three countries in the world, that does not provide paid family leave. Only 13 percent of American workers have access to paid family leave.

It’s hard to fathom how the United States can allow experiences like Alana Adams’ to continue. Seven days after giving birth via C-section where she also suffered from postpartum preeclampsia, Adams needed to return to her job as an EMT, because she had no paid leave.  When 47 percent of the workforce is made up of women, Adams’ story is far from unique.

All of this is what makes New York’s new law exciting — an idea whose time has finally come.

“This is history in the making,” said Debra Ness, president of the National Partnership for Women & Families, in a statement. When the new program takes full effect, an estimated 6.4 million New York workers will have the health and economic security paid leave provides.

The legislation, signed into law by Governor Cuomo on April 4, 2016, was a part of the 2016-1017 state budget and the result of years of tireless work by New York State advocates led by Time to Care. It included a $15 minimum wage plan and was enacted as part of a larger push, by the Governor and his Strong Families, Strong NY campaign, for economic justice.

But it also marks, in the words of the Governor’s office, “a pivotal next step in the pursuit of equality and dignity in both the workplace and the home”:

Paid family leave also has the potential to serve as a great equalizer for women. In many instances, women who leave the workforce to care for a newborn not only forfeit their existing salaries in the short-term, but also suffer diminished future earnings and career trajectories in the long term.

The Strong Families, Strong NY initiative and Time to Care NY both garnered a great deal of support from a broad base of individuals and coalitions including women’s rights organizations, the AARP, labor unions, legal advocacy groups, and others.  These organizations understood the severe economic injustice and harmful health impact a lack of paid leave can wreak upon women and families.

Longer maternity leaves are linked to a host of positive health outcomes. A 2011 study of paid family leave in 141 countries found that “an increase of 10 full-time-equivalent weeks of paid maternal leave was associated with a 10% lower neonatal and infant mortality rate.” Paid leave programs may literally save lives.

The New York program may be the tipping point. The program will be employee funded from a small employee payroll deduction so it costs businesses nothing. Employees will be eligible to participate after having worked for their employer for six months.

NPR reported this week on the potential far-reaching impact of the New York legislation (and California, which also passed a family leave law recently):

“I do believe this will pave the way for other states,” says Dina Bakst, the co-founder of A Better Balance, a nonprofit in New York that advocates for family-friendly policies in the workplace.

“What we’ve seen in other fights, like paid sick days and our fights for pregnancy accommodations — it starts local and then it sweeps the nation,” Bakst says. “I think we’re on the paid family leave wave.”

A paid family leave wave will not only help balance the scale of justice but could have a profoundly positive effect on the health of mothers and babies throughout the United States.


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