10: Paid Family Leave

Another initiative that became a constant concern of the foundation was the struggle to get New York State to adopt legislation creating paid family leave. The idea was to allow families to cope with the arrival of new children, serious illness, or the dislocation of military deployment. Parmely’s involvement with the issue went back to her time at the Long Island Community Foundation and continued from day one at Hagedorn.

“I had done some work locally, was trying to do some work statewide, and basically, I was told, ‘Why are you wasting your money, because it’s going to pass in New York State,’ ” Parmely recalled. That optimism turned out to be unwarranted. Getting paid family leave enacted became a decade-long struggle.

“My whole intent was for somebody to organize the Long Island organizations and community leaders to be a voice to educate around paid family leave and make it a possibility for New York State,” Parmely said. “Ever since we started here, all my grantees knew that paid family leave was an issue to educate their constituents about.”

Over the years, Parmely made a series of grants aimed at organizing people on Long Island about the issue. But she found the organizing didn’t happen the way she had intended. Still, she kept directing foundation money at the quest for paid family leave. “It was really important for New York State to pass it, for it to be able to elevate to a national issue,” she said.

One major obstacle, of course, was the business community’s objection to the costs that paid family leave would impose on companies. Another obstacle was Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo.

“He said, ‘There’s not an appetite for it. We need to move a women’s agenda,’ ” said Ellen Bravo, executive director of a national organization called Family Values @ Work, a Hagedorn Foundation grantee with a national reach and a fierce commitment to paid family leave. “And so, we got dozens of prominent women in New York to sign a letter immediately, that not only is there an appetite, we’re hungry for it. We got 20 nationally prominent women to do the same. The same day, on a Monday, we got an article in the New York Times about the New York letter and an article in the Washington Post about the national letter.”

Cuomo got the message. In his State of the State speech at the start of 2016, he came out forcefully for paid family leave, making a strong personal appeal, calling on the painful memory of the dying days of his father, Gov. Mario M. Cuomo.

“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. “I could have. I am lucky. I could have taken off work, I could have cut days in half. I could have spent more time with him. It was my mistake and a mistake I blame myself for every day. But there are many people in this state who do not have the choice. A parent is dying, a child is sick, they can’t take off of work.”

So Cuomo went on to call for 12 weeks of paid family leave, paid for by employee contributions. “At the end of the day family matters,” Cuomo said. “Intimate relationships matter, and in this 24/7 world let this state make a statement of what is really important, and those relationships are important. We should be there, one for another, especially in a family environment. Let’s pass family leave this session.”

In that one speech, only a few months after he had said there was no appetite for paid family leave, Cuomo made clear he was now fully in favor of it. “So he did three things at the same time: He moved it from being mainly about babies, to also being about seniors,” Bravo said. “He signaled that he was going to champion it. And he said 12 weeks, and he stuck to that. That was really important.”

Cuomo’s proposal was to cover all workers protected by the Temporary Disability Insurance program. They would pay for the family leave with payroll contributions of less than a dollar a week, and they’d be eligible for up to 12 weeks of leave at two-thirds of pay. “He stumped around the state for it,” Bravo said. “So that was a really big thing, and that wouldn’t have happened if it hadn’t been for the strength of the movement and his seeing that this was a popular political thing.”

Later in the 2016 legislative session, a few weeks before the budget was due to pass, Katharine Bodde of the New York Civil Liberties Union argued in an op-ed in the Albany Times-Union that the United States is “the only developed nation that does not provide workers paid time away from work in order to care for a newborn or a seriously ill family member. Federal law gives employees of large companies 12 weeks of unpaid leave—but who can afford to forgo the pay? The few who can are at the high end of the wage scale.”

Under the bill that Cuomo signed in April 2016, employees will be eligible for paid family leave after six months with an employer. The benefits would begin in 2018, when employees could collect 50 percent of their average weekly wage—but no more than 50 percent of the statewide average weekly wage. In 2021, the benefit would increase to 67 percent of the employee’s average weekly wage—but no more than 67 percent of the statewide average weekly wage.

This legislation is the best family leave policy in the country, Bravo said. Some of its key features are the 12-week duration, the job protection for those who take advantage of it, and the lack of carve-outs—Albany-speak for provisions that would exempt some businesses. Some jurisdictions are moving toward a higher rate of wage replacement than the two-thirds in the New York bill, but overall, passage in New York was a big win—especially because it was so bipartisan. The Republican-controlled Senate went along. “They heard from all kinds of people and all kinds of stories about how much this affects their constituents’ lives,” Bravo said.

In that significant legislative victory, with national ramifications, Hagedorn played a pivotal role. “The Hagedorn Foundation was really important for us for several reasons—first of all, because they supported this for a long time,” Bravo said. It’s a small foundation, but its influence mattered. “Also, they helped make connections, particularly on Long Island, which is a key area. They helped engage a number of groups.”

The paid family leave struggle was typical of the foundation: playing on a national stage, despite its small size; making connections and serving as a convener; helping national organizations to understand the peculiarities, opportunities, and pitfalls of Long Island. In the years ahead, every time a family takes advantage of paid family leave, to weather a crisis or to knit stronger bonds with children or elderly parents, the work of the Hagedorn Foundation and national partners like Family Values @ Work will be bearing fruit.

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