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Law firm ahead of curve on paid family leave

Apr 11, 2016, 10:02am EDT

By Michael Petro

Article appeared in Buffalo Law Journal

As a new mother, Buffalo attorney Candace Alnaji understands now more than ever the importance of spending those early months with your baby.

Through her employer, the Law Office of Lindy Korn PLLC which represents employees in workplace discrimination matters, Alnaji was allowed to take four months of paid leave. She was offered a flexible schedule upon her return to work, as well.

She worried less about the adjustments she would have to make personally because professionally she was covered. And she didn’t face the question of whether she could make ends meet financially or whether she would keep her job; she was able to focus solely on being a mom.

Alnaji and co-workers at the law firm who have gone through the same experience say they realize how fortunate they are to be part of a company considered ahead of the game. Male and females employees alike have benefited from founder Lindy Korn’s policies on paid family leave.

Alnaji said she appreciates that Korn practices what she preaches as an attorney. Everyone at the firm is a working parent, including Korn, who has grown daughters. Four of the six attorneys there have children under age 6 and three of them have toddlers. One employee is on paid family leave after having a baby recently.

Alnaji’s son just celebrated his first birthday. She works from home on Wednesdays and feels comfortable taking a day off here and there to tend to his needs.

“I feel very comfortable balancing my obligations as a mom and attorney,” Alnaji said. “I don’t have the fear that somehow I’m going to be punished or reprimanded or lose out professionally. It’s something we talk about at the firm, and we know we’re lucky because this is not the norm. It should be but unfortunately it is not.”

Expect that to change soon, at least in New York state.

The federal Family and Medical Leave Act allows for 12 weeks of leave time for employees, but it is for businesses with work forces of 50 or more and doesn’t require that the leave be paid. At this point, accrued paid time or disability must be used during the leave.

However, last week the state passed what is called the longest and most comprehensive paid family leave policy in the nation. Legislative leaders reached an agreement on the 2016-17 state budget, which includes a bill enacting 12 weeks of paid family leave.

The new policy, which would be phased in at the start of 2018, will cover those caring for an infant, a family member with a serious health condition or to relieve family pressures when someone is called to active military service. It would be funded by employee contributions.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo said this bill affects the quality of life for millions of state residents. They should be there when family needs them most, he added.

“The budget includes paid family leave, which is something I am very excited about,” he said. “You shouldn’t have to be in a position where you have to choose between a paycheck and being there for your family — and paid family leave does just that. … It’s literally a life-changer.”

The legislation may be a big step on a national level, as well Alnaji said. New York, the fourth state to enact this type of law, could set an example for other states.

“I’m excited for this legislation to pass,” she said. “I’m excited for new families down the line to have this benefit and I’m sure it will help them. Maybe people who were afraid or didn’t think they could have children before because of the financial sacrifice will decide that they can.”

Beginning in 2018, benefits would start at 50 percent of an employee’s average weekly wage, capped to 50 percent based on average weekly wage for state workers. It would be fully implemented in 2021 at 67 percent of their average weekly wage, capped to 67 percent of the statewide average weekly wage.

The program would be funded entirely through a nominal weekly payroll deduction, similar to what is done for disability. Employees are eligible to participate after working for an employer for six months.

In the state bill, eligibility for paid leave would include more people and expand to those planning to care for grandparents and grandchildren.

Attorney Christina Akers-DiCenzo had four months of paid leave from the Korn firm after her baby was born. She gradually eased her way back into the workforce. When she initially returned to work, she stayed home on Wednesdays to be with her baby. She said the time off is essential, whether it’s to take care of a baby or a sick loved one.

“It’s been nice to be back at work the last three months,” said Akers-Dicenzo, whose son is 6 months old. “People ask, ‘How are you. Was it really traumatic to come back?’ When you have a supportive partner, family, friends and employer, it’s OK. Is it hard being away from my child? Yes. But the fact that I had paid leave meant a lot for our family because we didn’t go into financial ruin and we didn’t have to worry.”

The time off allowed Alnaji to focus on her new routine, as well, and gave her confidence in her parenting abilities. By the time she returned to work, she had a close bond with her son and felt better about leaving him with a caregiver. She also felt recharged as an attorney.

“If I had to return after six or eight weeks, that would have been impossible,” she said, adding that she is able to better channel her energy in cases, especially those concerning clients who are or were pregnant and claim they were discriminated against.

“I was able to take something personal and kind of incorporate it into my professional life,” said Alnaji, who became co-chair of the Working Parents Committee for the local chapter of the Women’s Bar Association.

Akers-Dicenzo added: “The paid leave law is really meaningful for me because of the work the firm does. To help advocate for these people, these rights that are coming down the road are really going to be huge. It’s going to change people’s lives.”

Cuomo has said the policy will not cost businesses anything, but Harter Secrest & Emery attorney Amy Hemenway warns there may be an additional obligation on employers to figure out how to cover a worker’s job responsibilities over 12 weeks. Many employers are used to this because of the federal law, but before it was in an unpaid manner, she said. It may cost employers to bring in someone on a temporary basis.

Employers with fewer than 50 employees that hadn’t before been covered by the federal law may feel the biggest impact, according to Hemenway, a partner in the firm’s labor and employment practice.

“Those are the employers that will find it difficult to fill the gap for that extended period of time because they may only have one or two people who perform a particular function. And it could be a critical function to the organization,” she said.

It’s difficult to determine the impact of the provisions just yet, she said. California, Rhode Island, New Jersey and Washington are the only other states with a similar policy in place.

She wouldn’t be surprised to see guidance provided to help employers comply.

“This is the most expansive paid leave scheme in the nation,” she said. “There are only four others states that have any type of family leave in place and they have not had those provisions in place for any extended period of time, so it is difficult to say what the impact might be over the long term. … It’s something that we’ll just have to see how it plays out for the next few years.”

While some businesses have given employees paid leave ahead of the new law, like Korn, many still have to address the issue, according to Alnaji.

“Hopefully with the state taking notice and normalizing this a bit, maybe the trend will change,” she said. “But right now I feel very lucky to be at the place where I work. I feel a true loyalty to my employer because she’s fantastic and makes this possible. … It works. We get our work done and we do well for our clients. And business still moves.”

While every employer must take into consideration what works best for them, in the long run, she said, the new law can help with retention, save on the cost of retraining and rehiring employees and promote loyalty and satisfaction.

“It’s really a win-win,” she said. “Even at our firm, which is a small firm, Lindy has found a way to make it work.”

Akers-Dicenzo said her father was a small-business owner so she can relate to the concern about paid family leave, but the benefits should outweigh the costs.

“Both Candace and I just enjoyed this leave in the past year and a half and nothing bad happened to the firm. It is still here,” she said.

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