Diana Limongi, who works at a university in New York City, returned to work four months after giving birth to her daughter last year. This was the maximum amount of time she was able to take — unpaid — through the federal Family and Medical Leave Act. Even though her self-employed husband and her mom helped her out, it didn't feel like enough for the Astoria, Queens, mother of two.
Now that there's a new paid family leave program in effect in New York state, which gives most workers up to eight weeks of leave to care for a new child, sick loved one, or to assist when a family member is deployed in the military, Limongi is taking advantage of it. "It's a good time for me to be with her," she says of her 10-month-old daughter Sofia, who, between teething and being breastfed, needs a lot of care right now.
While Limongi says she's looking forward to spending time with her baby daughter, she wishes things were easier for new moms in the U.S. On her blog, she's advocated for paid family leave nationwide, and she shares that taking unpaid leave last year was a "huge burden." Her credit score took a hit, she and her husband used their Roth IRA to pay their mortgage, and they were putting groceries on their credit card.
"When I became a mom, I started discovering all these things we don't have," she says, pointing out the oft-cited fact that the U.S. is the only developed country without federally mandated paid maternity leave. She added that her company was slow to provide information about the new program, which certainly didn't help.
What is New York's new paid family leave law?
Enacted in 2016, New York's law provides private-sector and eligible public-sector employees up to eight weeks of partially paid leave. This wage is set to increase from 50% to 55% in 2019, 60% in 2020, and 67% in 2021. It's capped at $652.96 a week. The law allows workers to care for a newborn, adopted, or foster child; care for a seriously ill or injured loved one; or assist loved ones when a family member is deployed abroad.
What states currently have similar laws?
New York is now one of four states in the country to pass and implement paid family leave. California was the first in 2004, offering eligible employees at least 55% of their wages for up to six weeks. Starting January 1 this year, the benefits increased to 60 to 70% of wages. In 2009, New Jersey started offering paid family leave at up to two-thirds of a person's wages with a cap of $524 per week for up to six weeks. Rhode Island allows employees up to four weeks of paid leave at maximum $752 per week.
What are the law's most major benefits?
A crucial aspect of the law is job protection: It lets you focus on your family, knowing that you can get right back to work without losing your job. Molly Williamson, staff attorney at A Better Balance, an organization that advocates for and educates about the law, says in an interview that this particularly helps low-income women. "For low-income women, paid family leave means the end of the impossible choice between being there for your family when they need you the most — when a new child arrives or a health crisis looms — and the job that pays the bills," she says. "The ability to take the leave you need also has major health and economic benefits that continue throughout women's lives, from reduced postpartum depression to increased attachment to the workforce."
Being able to take time off without worrying about their finances taking a hit also increases men's role in caregiving, Ellen Bravo, co-executive director of Family Values @ Work, tells Refinery29. For example, when paid leave was implemented in Rhode Island, during the first year nearly one-third of all leave-takers were men. Plus, studies show U.S. fathers who take longer paternity leave are more involved in caring for their children nine months down the road. "There will be more sharing of caregiving responsibilities."
At a recent press conference, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said it was the passing of his own father, former Governor Mario Cuomo, that inspired him to work to launch the new policy. "You know, when you look back, what are the moments that matter? When the child is born? People get married? Who's there for you when you're sick? Do you get quality time to spend when someone is passing and they need peace, and they need relaxation? That's what life is really all about," he said.
Could you be stigmatized for taking leave?
While it's illegal for your employer to punish you for taking leave, "many people still worry about speaking up for their rights," says Williamson. If you need help talking to your boss or just want more information, A Better Balance runs a free, confidential legal hotline in English and Spanish at 1-833-NEED-ABB.
What's on the horizon for the rest of the country?
Momentum in Congress for paid family leave is rising, with New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand and Connecticut Rep. Rosa DeLauro working earlier this year to introduce the Family And Medical Insurance Leave (FAMILY) Act, modeled on successful state programs, which would provide workers with up to 12 weeks of partial income. "We're in a really interesting time for this issue," says Vicki Shabo, the VP for workplace policies and strategies at the National Partnership for Women & Families.
Just this year on January 1, paid sick-leave laws took effect in St. Paul, MN; Rhode Island; Vermont; and Washington. Both in Washington state and Washington, D.C., paid family and medical leave laws were enacted in 2017 and will take effect in 2019 and 2020. And in Massachusetts, lawmakers are considering a paid family and medical leave bill.
But there's still a lot of work to be done. The vast majority of states still don't have paid-leave policies; nationally, 32% of private-sector workers aren't able to earn a single sick day; and just 15% of workers have access to paid family leave through their employers. Lower-wage workers are disproportionately affected.
"It's time for real solutions," says Shabo. "We know the public is behind these policies, so it's time to make them happen."