While many people spent April 1 trying to sort real stories from April Fools’ jokes, New Yorkers were able to legitimately smile at some surprising yet very real news: On March 31, the New York State Legislature passed a bill making paid family leave time a law for nearly every person with a job.
Workers with a new child (whether born to them, adopted or fostered by them) will be entitled to 12 weeks of paid time off from work in New York State. Not unpaid, but paid. The legislation also says newer employees, employees at smaller companies, and part-time employees will be eligible for the benefit. And those who have family members who are gravely ill can take advantage of the very same furlough, too.
The new law, which will go into effect in 2018 and be phased in over a four-year period, doesn’t necessarily mean a windfall for those who take advantage of it; after the full benefits kick in, workers will be eligible for just 67% of the state’s average weekly wage, or a maximum of $848 per week for the highest paid workers. According to The New York Times, the leave will be funded by deductions from employees’ pay with no employer contributions.
Still, that’s a whole lot more than the current Family and Medical Leave Act offers, which is 12 weeks unpaid time off for only some workers, and exclusively at larger companies. And while other states — California, Rhode Island, New Jersey, and Washington — already have similar laws in place, their plans aren’t nearly as comprehensive as the one just passed in New York.
For starters, men will be equally eligible to take advantage of the paid leave; not just women. Furthermore, it will guarantee job protection for all parents working at small companies who make use of the offer — eliminating the fear plenty of workers (and women in particular) currently have about the safety of their job when they take time off to care for a new baby.
But more than just the benefits, which cannot be overstated, what the new legislation offers is the possibility of increased equality for men and women in the workplace, and perhaps even at home. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, who pushed hard to make this legislation a reality, has said himself that he regrets not spending more time with his own father when he was dying, and that “at the end of the day, family matters; intimate relationships matter.”
The law’s impact on relationships and families has the potential to be huge, as both parents of a new baby can stagger their leave, which means some babies can avoid daycare for up to four months. In addition to the maternal and paternal bonding, it also places less of a burden on the mom to put her job on the backburner — meaning there could be a shift of labor division at home. And at work, giving men the opportunity for paid paternity leave means perhaps a wider acceptance of work-life balance, because it won’t just be women temporarily altering their focus away from work; the possibility of reducing a stigma generally projected on women is enormous.
Of course it’s unlikely this will be the change that will finally make women appear more capable of handling a full (paid) workload when they also have small children at home. Yet by allowing men time off to care for their newborns and sick family members, too, it levels the playing field significantly and modifies the idea that caring for loved ones is mostly women’s work.
And as New York magazine points out, when such benefits are described in ways in which men might benefit too, suddenly this “women’s issue’ “can become, simply, issues.” Of course, the legislation in New York isn’t immediate, and it still trails far behind what’s offered in too many other countries. But it’s still significant in beginning to re-frame the idea of work-family balance, as well as the equal division of labor at home — and the significance of that is undeniably huge.