BY ASSEMBLYWOMAN CATHERINE NOLAN
Three years ago, Inneshia welcomed a healthy baby boy. Yet just three short weeks after giving birth, she had to return to work in order to provide the income that her household relies on. Her job as a home health aide is physically and mentally taxing, especially when coupled with the stress and constant worry about components of her newborn’s care — like breastfeeding and childcare.
Inneshia is among thousands of parents who are forced to make this difficult decision when caring for a newborn. A report this week by journalist Sharon Lerner in “In These Times” shows that, at least in one sample surveyed by the federal government, nearly 1 in 4 women are returning to work within two weeks of childbirth. The research points to woefully inadequate support systems for new mothers, especially low-income mothers. Too often, women are unable to maintain their economic stability before and after giving birth, forcing them to return to work before they and their children are ready.
Some new parents try to string together vacation and sick days, while others take the bare minimum of unpaid time off that they can afford, if they qualify for any at all. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, only 13 percent of US workers have access to paid leave through their employers, with higher paid workers being much more likely to receive paid leave. Because our current federal law, the Family and Medical Leave Act, is unpaid and comes with many other restrictions, new mothers are often forced to return to work too soon after having a child due to the financial burden of this lack of income.
Creating access to wages during leave keeps women and men from having to choose between their livelihoods and caring for a new child or seriously ill loved one. In fact, the United States is one of only two nations worldwide—rich or poor—that does not have a system for paid maternity leave. This needs to change – and New York State can help lead the way.
Here in New York, I have helped sponsor legislation A. 3870, which has passed the Assembly and would create an effective and reasonable paid family leave policy to support our working families. This policy would allow both men and women to take up to 12 weeks off to bond with a new child or care for a seriously ill family member. This benefit, funded by less a dollar per week contribution by employees, will allow new parents to take this needed time at two-thirds of their weekly wage, up to a cap of 50 percent of the statewide weekly wage, which is currently just over $600 per week.
New York’s Temporary Disability Insurance program, a critical support system for women physically recovering from childbirth, is also woefully overdue for an update. Created after World War II, it has been stuck at a maximum benefit of $170 per week for more than 25 years, far short of providing meaningful support for many new mothers during this critical time with a new child. Modernizing this system to the same level as paid family leave will show our commitment to supporting and caring for new mothers, and can be done with a modest increase in weekly premiums: approximately $2 once fully phased in, split between employees and employers, just as it is now.
These sobering statistics on mothers returning to work too soon should spur New York to take action and create access to a paid family leave program that will strengthen both our families and our economy. The Assembly, working closely with the NYS AFL-CIO and working women’s groups, has already passed a strong proposal supported by our Assembly child care working group that addresses the need to modernize the Temporary Disability Insurance program and include paid family leave. We will return to Albany in January ready to work with our colleagues at all levels of the Legislature to ensure that this measure becomes law.
Our state can show we truly value families and children with a modest and cost effective program that can help so many men and women have access to a needed, minimal paid family leave. Let’s work to make this possible.
Catherine Nolan represents the 37th Assembly District including the neighborhoods of Ridgewood, West Maspeth, Long Island City, Hunters Point, Blissville, Dutch Kills and Sunnyside.