New York’s Family Leave Act could use tweaking


New York’s Family Leave Act will take effect Jan. 1, giving employees one of the strongest family leave laws in the nation. That’s a good thing.

All New Yorkers who work 20 hours or more will be entitled to partially paid leave to bond with a new child, care for a loved one with a serious medical condition or relieve family pressures when a close relative is called to active military service — without fear of losing their jobs.

Employees will be able to take eight weeks off in 2018, 10 weeks in 2019 and 2020, and 12 weeks thereafter. Initially, they will receive 50 percent of their wages while on leave. That benefit will increase to 67 percent by 2021. Workers will fund the leave through state-mandated deductions from their paychecks — a maximum of .126 percent of their weekly gross salary per week.

All of this is welcome news, after many have had to rely on the federal government’s Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993, which provides employees with up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave.

As is so often the case with new laws, however, the state Family Leave Act could use tweaking.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed legislation in 2016 that will mandate a $15 hourly minimum wage throughout the state by 2021. The law recognizes the state’s high cost of living, particularly in New York City and surrounding counties, including Nassau. The Family Leave Act, however, does not account for minimum-wage earners, as it should.

The act’s maximum benefit is based on the state’s Average Weekly Wage, which in 2016 was $1,305.92. Any employee earning that amount or above would be entitled to a benefit of $652.96 per week in 2018. Employees earning less than that would receive half of their weekly compensation. So, those earning $15 an hour for a 40-hour week — $600 — would receive a benefit of only $300 a week.

Clearly, the law doesn’t account for the financial realities faced by minimum-wage earners. A 50 percent cut would be dramatic for anyone, but it could mean the difference between paying rent and not paying it for someone making minimum wage.

Yes, the salary percentages will increase in the coming years, but even a maximum benefit of 67 percent would likely not be enough for a minimum-wage earner to make ends meet.

Donna Lieberman, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, has repeatedly expressed concern that the wage benefit is too small, and has said that it should be more like 75 percent of an employee’s average salary. Cuomo should at least consider Lieberman’s argument.

On the employers’ side, the Family Leave Act is of great concern to at least some small business owners. Unlike the federal Family and Medical Leave Act, New York’s law does not provide exceptions for small businesses. That’s good for employees at those businesses, but the law could be a bitter pill for their employers. Many small businesses don’t have large staffs that can pick up the slack when one or more employees are out for extended periods of time.

The National Federation of Independent Business argues that a one-size-fits-all approach to the Family Leave Act is inappropriate and could harm a number of small businesses. The NFIB’s concern is legitimate.

That is not to say, however, that employees of small businesses should receive fewer benefits than those of larger companies. But the state could provide aid and guidance to small businesses — those with fewer than, say, 25 or 50 employees — to ensure that they are able to carry on when critical workers take family leave.

The state’s Family Leave Act is a noble piece of legislation. It will certainly make New York a more attractive state for workers from across the country. That will benefit companies in the long run. The state, however, must make sure that the law works for all of us.