There’s Something Critical Missing In The Fight For A $15 Minimum Wage

Why paid family leave is an essential part of lifting workers out of poverty.

By Emily Peck

New York’s women are on the verge of a huge win as the state gets closer to a $15 minimum hourly wage. That would be the highest of any state in the country, and a boon particularly to women.

But there’s something missing.

Fifty-two percent of the workers in New York who would benefit from a statewide wage increase are women, according to an analysis released by the progressive Economic Policy Institute on Wednesday.

The question now is: What about paid family leave? 

“If you care about women’s equality, paid leave is a key driver,” Ellen Bravo, the director of Family Values @ Work, a nonprofit coalition of groups pushing for paid parental and sick leave in the U.S., told The Huffington Post. 

As efforts to raise the minimum wage gather momentum in states and cities across the country, paid family leave seems like a natural next step. Giving workers the ability to take time off to care for a new baby or a sick family member is absolutely a core part of reducing income inequality and lifting working people out of poverty.

On Wednesday, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announced a $15 minimum wage for city workers, giving much-needed raises to the city’s crossing guards (some of whom live in shelters), its health care workers, its day care workers and many others.

Earlier this week, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) offered the same raise to employees of the state’s university system, and called for a statewide raise for all workers. Last year, he raised wages for fast-food employees and other state workers.

At a rally in Manhattan on Monday, Cuomo said that raising wages is a matter of values and a core way to fight inequality. “When you pay a minimum wage that forces [workers] to choose between paying rent and food,” he said, “you are doing the wrong thing as a society.”

The governor, who’s trying to position himself as a pro-labor progressive, has said comparatively little on paid leave. A New York Post report on Monday citing anonymous sources claimed the issue is on Cuomo’s agenda for 2016, but the governor’s press office did not respond to multiple phone calls and emails from HuffPost asking for clarification on his position. Last year a spokesman told The New York Times only that “the governor is a supporter of paid family leave.”

Cuomo was sharply criticized last year for saying the state lacked “the appetite” for paid leave and that women would be better served with a minimum wage increase. “You want to talk about a single thing that can help women economically, it’s going to be the minimum wage,” he told reporters in February.

The governor later walked back those comments, but he hasn’t offered much more in the way of specifics.

Without paid family leave, a higher minimum wage is still going to leave low-wage working women in a painful place. Only 5 percent of women in that group have access to paid leave, according to data from the Center for Law and Social Policy.

Without leave, having a baby can often send low-wage women into poverty. Almost 20 percent of low-wage working mothers have lost their job because of sickness or to care for a family member, according to data cited in a 2014 report from a women’s legal advocacy group.

Some women have little choice but to return to work within just a few weeks of having a baby, with disastrous health consequences for mother and child alike.

Advocates say a higher wage and paid leave go hand in hand. 

“The idea that it’s one or the other is a false choice — both are hugely necessary and not mutually exclusive,” Vivien Labaton, co-founder and co-executive director of the leave advocacy group Make It Work, told HuffPost. “Raising wages and doing paid family leave are both necessary.”

Despite the silence from the governor’s office, there’s optimism that 2016 will be the year that New York joins California, New Jersey and Rhode Island in offering paid leave to workers. “Momentum is growing. The demand is there,” Labaton said.

De Blasio last month announced paid leave for nonunionized workers.

Paid leave and higher wages “address the core things that people need to just get by,” de Blasio said in a press conference on Wednesday, announcing the $15 minimum wage for 50,000 city workers.

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