Pulse of the Peninsula: Urge support for $15 minimum wage

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I don’t recall any issue that Gov. Andrew Cuomo has championed so vigorously — stumping the state, appearing at three rallies in a day — than the issue of raising the minimum wage for all workers to $15, and creating a program for paid family leave. 

Both of these would significantly impact the economic well-being across the state, but most directly would impact women who dominate minimum wage jobs like home health-care workers (currently paid $10 an hour), and who are the majority of the estimated 2.6 million New Yorkers responsible for taking care of newborns, infants and sick, aging or dying family members.

Raising the minimum wage to $15 would benefit more than 2.3 million workers and boost direct spending power by more than $15.7 billion in New York State.

On Long Island, 382,236 workers would earn higher wages by raising the minimum wage to $15, increasing spending power by $2.5 billion.  

The increase would be phased in over a period of years.

Cuomo has already raised the wage to $15 for fast food workers and for 10,000 state workers and 28,000 State University workers. 

In 2013, he raised the state’s minimum wage to $9, which amounts to $18,000 a year. Because of inflation, $15 an hour is equivalent in purchasing power to the minimum wage set back in 1970.

“If you work full time, you shouldn’t have to live in poverty – which is why it’s time for New York to lead the way and pass a $15 minimum wage,” Cuomo told a rally at the “Yes We Can” community center in Westbury. “Raising the minimum wage will provide new opportunity and restore economic justice to millions of New Yorkers. Our proposal will lift families out of poverty and create a stronger economy for all, and I urge lawmakers to help us fight for fair pay for working families this year.”

Not surprisingly, the private sector is vigorously opposed  (billionaire Donald Trump has said the federal minimum wage of $7 is “too high”) and that setting a minimum wage amounts to “government meddling in the private market place.”

Cuomo countered that government is already in the “private market place” because at $18,000 government is forced to subsidize workers with $7,000 worth of welfare and food stamps per employee, on average. 

That amounts to $700 million a year paid for by New York taxpayers.

“So you say to our conservative friends when they say, “Well you shouldn’t be in the market place” you say, “Yea we want to get out of the market place, let the corporations pay a decent wage so we don’t have to put the food on the table of people who are getting shafted by the system.”

The governor is also proposing that New York enact a 12-week, paid-family-leave policy— which would be the longest benefits period in the nation — to help working families care for a new child or seriously ill relative. 

The program would be funded by employees — employers would pay nothing — who would pay about 70 cents a week into a fund, much like wages are now taxed for FICA (Federal Insurance Contributions Act) which funds Social Security and Medicare.

The United States is one of only three nations on the globe that does not have paid family leave and the other two are Suriname and Papua New Guinea.

While the Family Medical Leave Act of 1993 offers 12 weeks of unpaid leave, because of various exemptions, 40 percent of American workers are left out. 

Even for those who are covered by the FMLA, taking time off to care for a new child or sick relative often means workers are forced to forego wages, use up savings or vacation time, or even risk losing their jobs in order to care for new children or sick relatives.

“This injustice is particularly acute for low-income workers. In New York, nearly 50 percent of low-income working mothers have $500 or less in savings, and more than 33 percent have no savings. Without paid family leave, low-income workers are also more likely to utilize public assistance after the birth of a child or serious illness in the family.”

In addition to parents with new children, paid family leave is a crucial benefit to families caring for an ailing loved one — especially elderly relatives. 

More than 90 percent of elderly people needing care rely on their loved ones, either independently or along with paid help — and two-thirds of older Americans receive care solely from their family members. 

Seventy-eight percent of people who care for elderly relatives are employed, and 62 percent report working full time. With growing life expectancies nationally and an aging population, the need for elder care is expected to increase in the coming years.

But besides being good (humane) social policy, paid family leave also benefits businesses and the economy. Here’s how:

Paid family leave supports families: Steady income and employment are crucial for families caring for new children or sick loved ones — especially for low-income families. 

Paid family leave offers crucial economic security that enables working families to respond to unique medical needs and costs, keep up with general living expenses and avoid poverty or the need for public assistance. 

Paid family leave is proven to enable women remain in the workforce after having a child and increase their wages over time. It is also a factor in boosting positive health outcomes for young families — with benefits such as increased birth weight, decreased frequencies of premature birth, and a substantial decrease in infant mortality — all of which save the state money over the long term by requiring less assistance in school and resulting in more productive adults. 

In cases of ill relatives, paid family leave also helps patients stick to prescribed treatment plans and check-ups, avoid complications, and ultimately return to good health.

Paid family leave supports businesses: U.S. Department of Labor research shows that paid family leave helps businesses retain workers and avoid turnover — which reduces recruitment and training costs, and can result in higher productivity, engagement, and loyalty among employees.

Paid family leave supports the economy:  When working parents or caregivers are able to remain in the workforce while tending to children or sick loved ones, they are also more likely to continue progressing in their careers and increasing their wages over time, without career-killing gaps. 

This in turn yields greater support for their families, greater economy activity in their communities, and a more vibrant workforce overall. Additionally, paid family leave helps address the gaps in opportunity faced by low-income, minority and less educated workers.

“Along with the disrespect that goes to the worker in this current economy – there is a lack of power that the employee has,” Cuomo said. “The employee is treated more like a commodity.”

“The worker doesn’t have that same power and relationship with the employer that they used to have. So if something happens and you need to do something in your life— because there is more than work— there’s something called life. You have to balance the two, you shouldn’t have to choose between going broke, losing your job, or doing the right thing at home. That should not be a choice.”

Call state legislators to urge support for raising the minimum wage and creating the funding mechanism for paid family leave.

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