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Another Voice: New York succeeds when its families succeed

By Thomas Perez

Growing up in Buffalo was the best education anyone can get in family, community and resilience. It’s a city of hard workers and good neighbors. When someone falls on hard times, people rally around to offer a hand up. I’ll never forget the people who supported me and my family after my dad passed away when I was just 12 years old.

Last week I visited Buffalo and met families who aren’t so different from my own in the summer of 1974 – confronting challenges, but finding the strength to move forward. They work hard and play by the rules, but still struggle to make ends meet.

Regrettably, their struggle is even greater without access to paid leave, critical time to take care of themselves and their families during the important and challenging moments in life. We are the only industrialized nation on earth that doesn’t have some form of national paid leave.

We continue to force our people to make impossible choices between the jobs they need and the families they love. We force dads to put sick children on a school bus because they can’t afford to miss a day at the plant, the office or the store. We force women to return to work just weeks after giving birth. And we make it difficult for children to care for the parents who raised them.

We live in a “Modern Family” world, but we’re still playing by “Leave it to Beaver” rules.

It doesn’t have to be this way, and forward-looking states like New York are moving the needle. Absent leadership from Congress, states and localities nationwide are taking action to expand access to paid family and medical leave.

As it is on so many issues, New York is way out in front. A bill passed the Assembly last month that would allow workers to receive the equivalent of up to two-thirds of their wages for as many as 12 weeks of family leave.

Paid leave helps our economy grow, too. Here’s one example from just across our northern border: In 2000, the United States and Canada had about the same labor force participation rate among women ages 25 to 54. Today, Canada is ahead of us by more than 8 percentage points – in part because it has generous paid leave laws. If we had kept up with Canada, we would have over 5 million more women in the workforce today. And over 5 million more women in the workplace would mean $500 billion in additional economic activity per year. We’re squandering talent and leaving money on the table.

As long as we don’t have paid leave, we are stifling economic growth and holding ourselves back from shared prosperity, here in New York and throughout the nation. Expanding access to paid leave is the right thing to do for families and the smart thing to do for our economy. It will strengthen New York and the whole nation.

Thomas Perez, the U.S. secretary of labor, grew up in Snyder.