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State’s venture into paid family leave could reinforce anti-business image

The allure of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s push for paid family leave in New York is undeniable. So is its value, especially given that the United States is one of three countries in the world that don’t provide that benefit.

But what Cuomo is proposing also represents a significant change and, what is more, it is a change that would happen in New York, known far and wide as one of the nation’s least business-friendly states. This is an idea well worth exploring, but New York needs to go into it with a clear understanding not only of its many benefits, but of its potential costs. That is likely to require compromise.

The benefits go mainly to the families that would use this leave program, but they would also accrue in some measure to businesses, helping them attract and retain quality employees. For parents with young children and older adults with ailing parents, paid family leave could make a significant difference in quality of life. How much of a difference is open to debate, given the limits of the program, but for most people without access to such a benefit, it would be better than nothing.

Under Cuomo’s proposal, employees across the state would pay up to 60 cents per week to start, and up to $1.09 per week later. For that, workers on leave would qualify for 12 weeks of leave on reduced pay. To start, that would equal 50 percent of their average weekly pay up to a maximum of the statewide average weekly pay. As the program ramped up, that benefit would increase in both categories to 67 percent of pay.

That funding mechanism relieves business of shouldering the program’s cost, though workers who already have a leave policy at their place of employment would end up paying for a benefit of use to others, not themselves.

But businesses are not entirely off the hook. They would be required to keep the job open for the employee on leave, potentially incurring overtime or the costs of a temporary employee, while also maintaining the worker’s health insurance benefit. They would also incur at least some cost in administering the program. Small companies would be most affected by these drawbacks.

None of this means that paid family leave is bad policy. It has tremendous benefits. The question is how doable it really is in a state that already has a terrible business reputation and which, under Cuomo, is also pushing to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour.

Cuomo argues that the improving economy will be able to absorb the gradual wage increase, and that could be true. But what the skeptical outside world will see is that a state that has been historically unfriendly to business is pushing for dramatic changes that further complicate operations. It’s a factor that has to be examined as legislators consider these proposals.

As usual, opponents and supporters are lining up on opposite sides of the issue, with neither acknowledging the legitimacy of the other’s position. But the Democratic-led Assembly has proposed its own family leave bill and the Senate, whose Republican leaders fear losing their narrow majority, is prepared to consider family leave.

There should be room for compromise. Unshackle Upstate, a business group focused on improving the upstate economy, has hinted that a program offering four weeks of leave might be acceptable. Eight weeks would split the difference.

If everyone is willing to deal, then the state may be able to adopt a broadly useful policy that limits the risk to business while testing its impact. Then, experience can show whether the program should be expanded.