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Cuomo, in Buffalo visit, finds support for family leave at both ends of the life spectrum

At Hospice Buffalo in Cheektowaga, the concept of family involvement at the end of life is nothing new. Relatives have long spent countless hours there at the bedsides of the dying.

But the legally protected ability of a family member to devote as much time as needed at hospice, or to care for a newborn or sick relative, is only now under serious consideration by the State Legislature. For Patricia A. Ahern, CEO of Hospice Buffalo, the idea of paid family leave for those attending to terminally ill relatives is ripe for discussion.

“Anything that provides for families being together at that time is what anyone would want,” she said Wednesday, adding that financial obligations and work responsibilities can prove overwhelming.

“The alternative is often putting loved ones in a nursing home when they can no longer shoulder the burden,” she said. “Sometimes, it’s, ‘What’s the best bad decision we can make?’ ”

That kind of personal dilemma confronts too many New Yorkers, especially the poor, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo said in Buffalo on Wednesday. He rallied several hundred supporters at the Delavan-Grider Community Center on the East Side to push legislation for paid family leave that, along with raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour, dominates his agenda.

“If a person has a life crisis, a situation like we have been talking about, they should be allowed to stay home without going broke,” he said, “and that is what an employee-funded paid leave program is all about, and that is what we want to pass this year.”

Cuomo told a sympathetic crowd of Democratic officials (no Republicans were spotted), union workers, women’s groups and social organizations that workers formerly could approach their employers about taking time off to care for a newborn or a dying family member. Now, he said, workers are viewed like “laptop computers” that get thrown away when broken.

“You go to an employer today and you say, ‘I need a few weeks off to care for my parents,’ ” he said. “The employer says, ‘Take a few weeks. As a matter of fact, take whatever you want, because you’re not coming back.’ That is the attitude – that you can be replaced. And we’re saying we should restore balance to that relationship.”

Business groups have expressed opposition to at least some aspects of the proposals by Cuomo and legislative Democrats.

Cuomo wants the option for employees to pay into a fund providing up to 12 weeks of paid leave to care for a relative. Various versions of the concept are floating through the Legislature, but he said Wednesday that he hopes the Republican-led Senate, especially, will now take up the idea.

The governor ventured into one of Buffalo’s poorest neighborhoods to make the case that impoverished workers often encounter the most daunting family care challenges. They can be forced into choosing between fulfilling work obligations and their needs at home.

“It is bad to be poor and white, but the numbers are worse if you are poor and black or poor and brown,” Cuomo said. “It is not even close. And when we talk about fairness and justice and opportunity and a fairness agenda, we also have to understand that economic inequality starts in black and brown communities very, very young.”

Some business groups such as Unshackle Upstate have hinted that plans for four weeks of leave rather than the 12 Cuomo proposes may prove acceptable. The governor said Wednesday that “on this issue, there has to be a reason for compromise,” he said. “Tell me what you disagree with. There’s a basic humanity to this at one point.”

Allegra C. Jaros, president of Women & Children’s Hospital, said new mothers and newborns alike benefit from significant time together upon arriving home from the hospital.

“Anything that supports the concept of time, bonding and recovery for a mom and family is important,” she said. “And any kind of education or community initiative to support people taking that time is always helpful.”

email: rmccarthy@buffnews.com