SPECIAL REPORT: Inside Paid Family Leave

BUFFALO, N.Y. (WIVB)- Employees of private companies in New York State may start to see paycheck deductions in July for the state’s new paid family leave program.

There are very few employees exempt from paying into the program and some state residents spoke out on social media saying the program should’ve been on the ballot. It was passed as part of the 2016 budget.

Western New York parents like Mariah Hagen, however, told News 4 paid family leave will be a blessing.

“Just because you’re going through a hard time doesn’t mean your bills stop,” said Hagen.

She went back to work less than a week after her son was born. Hagen lives in Batavia but gave birth to her son two months early at Women and Children’s Hospital in Buffalo.

With the cost of commuting and mounting medical bills, she said she had no choice but to return to work.

“I’m like I can’t do this without working,” said Hagen. “I would go through serious anxiety. I would be there at work and be thinking, he’s there by himself.”

She said this new program will bring relief to other parents.

Starting January 1, 2018, employees of private companies will be able to take paid time off for maternity and paternity leave, caring for a sick relative, or if a military family member is deployed.

“Not only will you receive paid benefits but your employer has to hold your job for you,” said Kevin Wicka, an employment attorney with the Tarantino Law Firm in Buffalo.

He said it will be phased in over the next four years.

“There’s a sliding scale,” said Wicka.

In 2018, an employee can take eight weeks of paid time off. In 2019 and 2020, an employee can take 10 weeks of paid time off. By 2021, employees can take 12 weeks of paid time off.

The amount of money employees will receive will also increase over four years.

 

Employees will get 50 percent of their weekly wage in 2018, 55 percent of their weekly wage in 2019, 60 percent of their weekly wage in 2020 and 67 percent of their weekly wage in 2021.

There’s a limit to how much money employees can get.

The program is capped at the state average weekly wage, which is $1,305. If an employee makes more than that, they still only receive a percentage of $1,305.

To take paid family leave, employees have to put in time with their company.

If you normally work 20 hours a week or more, you have to work 26 weeks consecutively to be eligible. If you work less than 20 hours a week, you have to work 175 days for your company.

“It will work very similar to New York State’s disability program so employers are required to provide coverage through the New York State disability carrier and it’s done through deductions out of employees pay check,” said Wicka. “It is supposed to be completely funded by the employee.”

Starting in July, employees may start seeing .126 percent of their weekly wage taken out of their paycheck. The amount withdrawn is also capped at the state average, which means the most anyone will have deducted is .126 percent of $1,305.

We did the math and the max amount that can be deducted per paycheck is $1.64.

Employees are exempt from the program if they work for a company that doesn’t allow them to work 26 consecutive weeks or 175 days. The state says, for example, farm laborers and seasonal workers aren’t eligible for the benefit.

All other employees have to pay in whether they plan to use paid leave or not.

“We all have a life cycle and we all know that at some point in time we’re going to be at an end of life stage,” said Democratic State Senator Tim Kennedy.

He said it will allow people to take off work to tend to a sick or dying family member without the fear of losing their job.

“This one of those initiatives like Social Security like Medicare that is there for us at the end of the day when we need it the most,” said Kennedy.

Republican State Assemblyman Ray Walter agrees it’s necessary in this economy.

We asked him if it’s a fair initiative.

“There are a lot of people in the workforce who are going to be paying into the system that aren’t going to draw any benefits out of it,” said Walter. “Those are decisions we make as a society all the time.”

Walter said he pushed to have the program rolled out more slowly.

“I wouldn’t want to see it go any further at this point,” he said. “We want to make sure that businesses are still able to handle this, that our economy is able to handle it and see what the benefits are. Maybe it’s something that will work out really well and we’ll want to expand it but maybe it’s not and there’s going to be a lot of issues with it. We’re just not sure yet of how it’s going to work.”

He said his main concern is for small businesses. Employers have to hold the job of anyone who takes paid family leave, which means hiring and training a temp worker or passing along to workload to another employee.

Walter told News 4 he would’ve liked to see small businesses, with fewer than 20 employees for example, exempt from the program. Right now, private employers of all sizes have to participate.

Another big question is whether the program is sustainable.

“It’s yet to be seen,” said Walter.

The state started taking money out of people’s paychecks five months before the program starts to build up the fund.

Walter said, however, there could be problems if more people take leave than there’s money for.

“Where is that extra money going to come from?” he said. “Is it going to come from the employers who are already overburdened in New York State? Is it going to come from the taxpayer who is already overburdened New York State? Those are questions we need to find out as this program progresses.”

We asked Sen. Kennedy whether the program will be sustainable and he said the Dept. of Financial Services is currently working with insurance companies to make sure it’s successful.

“We will find any speed bumps in the process and address them accordingly,” said Kennedy. “As this was rolled out and as the decisions were being made on how to phase this in, we wanted to make sure not only does this system exist but it works, it works in perpetuity.”

Both lawmakers acknowledge there are still a lot of questions that won’t be answered until the programs rolls out in January.

 

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