Freelancers Union is advocating for better options for freelancers to take paid family leave. Member experiences are our most powerful evidence that change is necessary, so please reach out with yours at [firstname.lastname@example.org].
On January 1, 2018, the Paid Family Leave law went into effect in New York State. Billed as one of the most comprehensive family leave programs in the country, it allowed eligible employees to take paid, job-protected time off to bond with a new child, care for a family member with a serious condition, and assist the needs of family members on active military service.
So where did freelancers fit in? There was good news and frustrating news. While freelancers were not required to participate in Paid Family Leave, they could choose to opt in by purchasing an insurance policy — from an approved list of state carriers — that would cover paid family leave. There was, however, a giant loophole: they had to buy coverage before the January 1 deadline or face a two-year waiting period to use their benefits.
Despite several updates to the law, that waiting period remains. It affects freelancers like Melissa Extein, an organizational therapist and new single mom who is not eligible to use her benefits until February, 2020. “I’m upset that the new law exists, but I’m not able to access the benefits yet, despite having had my own business for over five years,” she says. “I would very much like the policy to change so that other people don’t have to face the same challenge."
Melissa is a single mom by choice, who made the decision to get pregnant in early 2018. It took a friend of a friend (also a freelancer) to alert her to the fact that while she could start paying into the New York State Insurance Fund, there was a two-year waiting period for Paid Family Leave benefits. “I may have gotten something in the mail and thrown it away, but I know I only saw advertisements about Paid Family leave on the subway and in other public places after January 1, so I don’t think that detail was well communicated at all.”
After contacting A Better Balance and the New York State Insurance Fund, Melissa determined that she qualified for disability insurance now and Paid Family Leave in February 2020. On the latter, she says, “I don’t know if I’m going to end up taking it, as my daughter will be 9 months old, and I will already have returned to working with my clients. It may be more practical and lucrative for me to keep working at that point. Whereas Paid Family Leave would be really helpful to me now, while I’m taking time off to care for a newborn babyw. Delaying these benefits presents a real challenge.”
Despite the current shortcomings of the Paid Family Leave law, Melissa has no second thoughts about combining freelancing with parenting. “I went into freelancing to have the time and the flexibility to be a parent and not be so beholden to a 9-to-5, or is it now 8-to-6 (!?) office job,” she says. “This is how I wanted to set up my life. Why undo it now? I feel very grateful that when I do start working with my clients again I don’t have to put my daughter in daycare or worry about full-time childcare. And a lot of my clients are parents, too, and understand. I’m hoping it will be a good fit for us at least through the early years.”
But on Paid Family Leave, policymakers owe freelancers like Melissa much better. “The waiting period just seems discriminatory, and it helps no one,” she says. “I don’t see any purpose it serves. All New Yorkers, including freelancers, should be able to determine the timing that works best for themselves and their families — which is the ultimate point of Paid Family Leave.”