Julia adopted a baby girl born four months premature in 2008. The baby weighed just 1.5 pounds and had to be resuscitated. Julia and her partner longed to have more time with their baby during the 110 days she spent in the hospital, but had to save their sick leave and vacation time for when the baby came home to them in Ithaca. When she did, she needed almost daily medical checks for months. Julia took all her sick leave to manage her daughter’s care, but had no paid family leave.

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Today, New York took a vital step toward supporting working families like Julia’s. The governor signed into law a state budget bill establishing a paid family leave program. It will ensure that families will no longer have to choose between a paycheck and urgent family care needs.

Under the program, which will take effect in January 2018, workers will be eligible for job-protected, paid leave to bond with a new child, care for a seriously ill loved one, or address certain military family needs.     

The benefits will increase over time. In the first year, workers will be able to get up to eight weeks of leave, increasing to 12 weeks by the fourth year. The wage replacement level will also build over time, from 50 percent of the worker’s own average weekly wages in the first year to 67 percent in the fourth year (up to a cap). The program will be funded through worker-paid insurance premiums of about a dollar a week.

The US has no national law for paid family leave, though a bill is pending in Congress. Meanwhile, states are acting.  New York is joining California, New Jersey, and Rhode Island, which already have paid family leave.

A large coalition of unions and civil society groups led by the New York Paid Family Leave Insurance Campaign championed this reform. Human Rights Watch was part of this coalition. We highlighted how paid family leave is a human rights issue, and how the US is an extreme outlier on this issue: it is the only industrialized country with no national law guaranteeing paid family leave. Most other countries have a variety of paid leave laws—including for maternity, paternity, parental, and other family caregiving leave.

Our 2011 report (updated in 2015) focused on the negative impacts of the lack of paid family leave under law in the US. The parents we interviewed for the report, including Julia, recounted how short and unpaid leave from work after childbirth or adoption contributed to delaying immunizations and health visits for babies, postpartum depression and other health problems for mothers, and early cessation of breastfeeding. During unpaid leave, many went into debt, and some resorted to public assistance and bankruptcy.  

The bill signed today marks significant progress. Paid family leave will provide priceless peace of mind to millions of New York working families. State-by-state reforms are a good step. Even better would be a nationwide paid family leave law.