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Hochul wants to raise the state's temporary disability benefits for the first time in 35 years

This file photo shows the New York state Capitol in Albany.
Hans Pennink
/
Associated Press file photo
This file photo shows the New York state Capitol in Albany.

Gov. Kathy Hochul is proposing in her state budget to increase the temporary disability leave benefit for injured workers for the first time in 35 years, and to give it parity with the state’s paid family leave program.

Temporary disability leave is for New Yorkers who are unable to work for a period of time due to an injury or illness that occurred outside of their job. People with pregnancy-related conditions are also eligible for the benefit. 

The maximum amount of money paid to a worker per week has been $170 since 1989. When taxes and other expenses like Social Security contributions are taken out, the weekly amount is considerably lower.

State Sen. Jeremy Cooney, a Rochester-area Democrat, said that amount is not enough for a household to pay their bills, and it needs to be raised. He’s sponsoring legislation to do that.

“This benefit has not been updated since 1989,” Cooney said. “That's when Taylor Swift was born.”

Cooney said he’s “delighted” that Hochul has incorporated many of the bill’s provisions into her state budget. Hochul wants to increase the maximum weekly benefits over five years and eventually tie it to the statewide average weekly wage, which is currently over $1,700.

He said it will be easier to make the change if it’s part of the state’s multibillion-dollar spending plan.

“We're pretty excited that we're seeing this issue become elevated,” Cooney said.

Cooney said most people aren’t aware of how little the benefit pays — until they need it. He became aware of it through a constituent’s plight shortly after he was elected to office in 2020. He said single-income households, and lower-income households, who are living paycheck to paycheck, have to make difficult choices about providing for basic necessities like rent, car payments, and food.

“I mean, it's really about allowing New Yorkers to have time to heal. At the end of the day, that's what we're talking about,” he said. “We're allowing people who are injured outside of the workplace to have a wage that's a living wage, so that they can provide for themselves and their families. They can heal and then rejoin our workforce.”

The temporary disability payments are far lower than the more recently enacted paid family leave program, which pays a maximum of over $1,000 a week. It’s capped at 67% of the statewide average weekly wage.

Rebecca Hanna, who lives on Long Island with her husband and two children, used the temporary disability benefit during both of her pregnancies for childbirth and postpartum recovery.

She said ironically, if she were to have another child now, and her husband took paid family leave to take care of the new baby, he would receive significantly more money per week than she would.

“If I were to welcome a new child into my family today, let's say I needed to use disability, for childbirth and postpartum recovery again, I would get $170 a week,” Hanna said. “Meanwhile, my husband would get more than six times that amount, through paid family leave. We're talking over $1,000 a week to care for me or to bond with our new child.”

She said that's not fair.

“It's not equitable,” Hanna said. “It's a tear in our social safety net that really needs to be mended.”

Hanna said unlike most people who need temporary disability benefits, she had time to plan for leave at the end of her pregnancy. She cut her household’s budget to save money in advance. And she also had access to a supplemental short-term disability plan offered by her employer.

“I was lucky because it was a pregnancy-related condition. I knew about it ahead of time,” she said. “I had several months to be able to prepare financially for a period of time where I wouldn't be getting a paycheck. And what I would be getting through disability benefits would only be a fraction of my weekly pay.”

While New York state pays staff to administer the program, the weekly benefits are paid through contributions from workers and employers, which would rise slightly under the proposal.

Cooney said going forward, he would like the rate of temporary disability benefits to be tied to the rate of inflation, just like it is now for paid family leave.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau chief for the New York Public News Network, composed of a dozen newsrooms across the state. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.