By Amanda Drucker
Paid Sick Leave protections were expanded in 2021 in New York State (NYS) in response to the Covid-19 pandemic. Although there was a recent expansion of Paid Sick Leave, these policies still disproportionately place significant numbers of women at a disadvantage; specifically, women in smaller organizations with less employees, and state employees who do not receive the same protections as others. I propose that Governor Kathy Hochul, in conjunction with the New York State Department of Labor, expand New York State’s Paid Sick Leave policy to reform coverage requirements by standardizing Sick Leave, especially for people seeking abortion during a time when abortion rights are in jeopardy of being drastically curtailed in much of the U.S. in the near future.
Currently, New York State’s Paid Sick Leave policy is not standardized for all employees. Such policies vary based on several factors. Employee protections under New York State’s updated Paid Sick Leave policy depends on factors such as the number of employees in the organization as well as the accruals of the organization. This results in employee protections that vary as follows: employers with 100 or more employees must provide up to 56 hours of paid sick leave per calendar year; employers with 5 to 99 employees must provide up to 40 hours of paid sick leave per calendar year; employers with 4 or fewer employees and net income of greater than $1 million in the previous tax year are required to provide up to 40 hours of paid sick leave per calendar year; and employers with 4 or fewer employees, and net income is $1 million or less in the previous tax year, are required to provide up to 40 hours of unpaid sick leave per calendar year (ny.gov, 2021). Because the Paid Sick Leave policies are not standardized across public and private employers, or across organizations of all sizes, there is a significant gap in Sick Leave coverage that leaves out many types of employees. For example, public employees who work for the state and city governments, people in smaller organizations, and people who work for organizations that do not meet their accruals, do not get paid sick leave. By not having paid sick leave standardized, people who work for smaller organizations can face severe consequences if their need exceeds their amount of paid sick time, whereas someone in a larger organization can have more paid sick time off. As compared to the Paid Family Leave policy in New York State, under which all workers have 12 weeks of paid leave (ny.gov, 2022), Paid Sick Leave is not standardized and can cause serious implications for workers who may be unable to meet the basic needs of their families at a time when they are least able to work.
These burdens can fall disproportionately on single women of child-bearing age. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, in 2021, of approximately 11 million single parent families with children under the age of 18, nearly 80 percent were headed by single mothers (Single Mother Guide, 2022). The plight of single mothers will only become more difficult should additional restrictions on the right to have an abortion and abortion after-care become more widespread in the wake of the anticipated U.S. Supreme Court decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, which is expected to overturn the constitutional right to abortion (Politico, 2022). It is not difficult to imagine a time in the near future when women will need extra time to travel to get an abortion, schedule their appointments due to lack of abortion provider access, obtain follow up care and recover from abortion procedures. The current policy leaves a gap in legal protections for workers who have used their sick leave, which is not standardized. New York State’s Paid Sick Leave must be reformed to include workers in the public sector, and must standardize Paid Sick Leave for all employees, across all organizations regardless of size and company income. The time for such reform is now as we venture into unprecedented times for reproductive rights with women representing a greater portion of the workforce than ever before.
I propose that Governor Kathy Hochul, in conjunction with the New York State Department of Labor, reform the state’s Paid Sick Leave policy to be standardized regardless of organization size and income. The need for paid employee sick leave has little to do with company size or financial success of the organization, and therefore must be standardized across all organizations. Further, state employees do not have the same Paid Sick Leave regulations as private employees do, which impacts almost 300,00 people (FRED, 2022). In the wake of abortion rights being rolled back 50 years, it is imperative to have as many abortion and women’s health protections as possible, as New York State will quickly see an influx of people to access reproductive care.
One option to reform Paid Sick Leave is to adopt the Paid Family Leave policy of 12 weeks. Paid Family Leave does not cover the same clauses Paid Sick Leave covers, but Paid Family Leave is standardized so that every private-sector employee receives 12 weeks. Additionally with Paid Sick Leave, once employees exhaust their designated amount of time that is contingent on company size and accrual, they are no longer able to use their sick leave and must return to work. With the potential overturning of Roe v. Wade, we can expect women having to travel farther to access reproductive care, specifically abortion care, longer wait times or delays from abortion providers who are overwhelmed, as well as other repercussions that have not been seen in many years.
There is structural inequality that places public sector employees, as well as employees who work at smaller organizations, at a severe disadvantage since they receive less paid sick leave than employees of larger organizations. Time-sensitive medically necessary procedures, like abortion, should not have to depend on where someone works. Governor Hochul and the New York State Department of Labor should acknowledge this policy’s inequities and remedy this problem by giving a standard amount of paid sick leave that spans across public and private organizations without qualifiers.
NYS residents may be unaware of the many facets of the Paid Sick Leave regulations and may not know about their right to paid sick leave or the limits on those rights. Particularly now, with the battle over abortion rights so prominently in the news, NYS residents should be aware of their right to paid sick leave with respect to abortion services and after-care. For example, the New York State Paid Sick Leave law includes appointments with providers, any consultation prior to obtaining care, picking up any medication, and any follow-up care, which are all crucial components of abortion care (ny.gov, 2021) (National Partnership for Women and Families, 2022). Using a human rights-based framework, protections for food, water, shelter, health, and work are all deemed as human rights, which are protected under federal and state law. These rights cannot be taken away, and promote dignity and equality of all people. Under this framework, governments and governing bodies must be held accountable for maintaining human rights-based principles. Governments must be transparent, accountable, and non-retrogressive. In a “positive rights” framework, governments must take proactive measures. New York State must take proactive measures to protect employees, particularly women of child-bearing age in the current political environment, to ensure people can take Paid Sick Leave and use their leave to access necessary abortion care, regardless of organization size, public or private entity, or the organization’s finances.
One way to standardize Paid Sick Leave for public and private employees in New York State is to follow the same model currently used for unemployment insurance. Unemployment insurance uses a model where employers pay taxes into a government operated fund that is available to pay employees a portion of their income temporarily if they lose their jobs (Stone et al., 2022). If paid sick leave were provided and paid for using a similar system, paid sick leave would not come directly out of the employer’s pocket all at once when an employee needs to take leave. The deductions and benefits could then be uniform across all organizations. Freed from the immediate burden of having to pay absent employees, employers would be able to hire temporary help to offset any additional labor needs. In this way, every employee can take a standardized amount of leave, without causing undue hardship to the employer, especially smaller companies. By following the unemployment insurance model, Paid Sick Leave can include public and private employees, as well as have a standardized amount of leave.
Under such a uniform Paid Sick Leave Act, additional protections can be included to ensure greater reproductive rights and freedoms to female employees. By standardizing leave through the unemployment insurance model, private and public employees can use their leave to access abortion care, especially during a time when providers have the potential to be significantly overwhelmed, overworked, and people must travel farther distances to get to, all of which increases the time and resources necessary to access reproductive care. This proposal represents a realistic and manageable model by which Governor Kathy Hochul and the NYS Department of Labor can advance the interests of currently underserved employees, particularly people who may need abortion care.
Although New York State’s Paid Sick Leave policies were expanded recently in response to the pandemic, in order to ensure further protections for people who may need abortions, Sick Leave policies must be standardized to all employees in New York State. Governor Kathy Hochul and the NYS Department of Labor can ensure reproductive rights protections by modeling Paid Sick Leave policies to the system that has been used to provide unemployment insurance to employees for decades. Not only does this ameliorate the burden on employers when someone takes leave, but it can standardize the amount of leave one can take without having separate policies for public employees and for employees who work for smaller organizations. This policy ensures legal protections for people who may seek abortions by using a human rights-based framework which provides protections for food, water, shelter, health, and work. Now more than ever, our governments must take precautions to protect employees and provide for access to reproductive services. By standardizing New York State’s Paid Sick Leave laws, we would provide residents of New York State with a more equitable future.
Amanda Drucker is graduating in May 2022 with an MPA in non-profit management and public policy with a specialization in public policy. She is passionate about reproductive justice and amplifying marginalized voices. This is her second published piece.
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