Melissa Mark-Viverito
New York City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito.

NEW YORK (WOMENSENEWS)–In her State of the City address earlier this year, Melissa Mark-Viverito, speaker of the New York City Council, said the council, which passed a paid sick leave law in 2014, will advocate for paid family leave at the state level.

In this recent interview, Mark-Viverito discussed how easy it would be to implement a statewide paid law, by simply expanding the definition of the law. She also addressed stalled immigration reform; same-sex marriage bans in Ohio, Michigan, Kentucky and Tennessee; diversity in the city’s police force; and how a instituted in 2014 provides latitude in sexual identification.

Mark-Viverito, 45, was born in Puerto Rico and came to New York at age 18 to attend college. In January 2014, she became the first member of the City Council’s Black, Latino and Asian Caucus to be elected speaker of the New York City Council.

1. What would it take to institute a state paid family leave law?

There is already a mechanism that exists at the state level. All that has to be done is to expand the definition of who’s eligible for disability compensation to include families and children. The idea is to go beyond the people who are disabled and talk about relatives of the employed who are sick . . . Basically, it is to expand the definition. Administratively, it would be a very minimal payroll tax, which would then allow people to have access to paid family leave. It is really doable and it seems the state Senate, although it is Republican-led, has talked about supporting it and even the Assembly. There seems to be an opening and that would be an incredible opportunity.

2. Women, particularly those from minority groups, experience gender bias and discrimination at every stage of their careers. What has been your experience so far as a Latina holding the speaker seat?

A lot of times, you are still the only woman in the room. Also, unfortunately, we are seeing fewer women in the council. We have 15 women now out of 51 members. Last November, we had 18 women and at other points as many as 21 or 22 . . . It is all our responsibility to advance issues that are important to women. But, a lot of times, that burden falls on women. And when fewer and fewer are carrying that load it becomes much more of a challenge.

3. In the aftermath of the protests against the killing of black men by city police officers, you advocated for an expansion of the police force. Do you know that several studies link to less police violence and less use of lethal force?

I am not aware of these studies, which I would love to see. Obviously, we want to reflect diversity . . . It has been so difficult to get diversity in the ranks and we are starting to see a shift, thankfully, because of the pressure . . . I don’t know what the percentage of women in the force is now but definitely we would be willing to get that study and would always want the police force to be inclusive of more women and to direct our recruiting efforts to make sure women see this as a legitimate career path.

4. You recently applauded the decision of the government of Puerto Rico to end its opposition to marriage rights for LGBTQ. The council also applauded the first participation of a lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender support group — [email protected], a staff group at NBC – in the St. Patrick’s Day Parade in New York. Yet, a recent study by the Center for American Progress and the Movement Advancement Project finds that LGBT women, more than others, struggle to find and keep well-paid jobs and are discriminated against by health insurers. What can be done there?

It concerns me when I hear things like that. That is why the municipal ID program was something we were strongly pushing for. It helps every New Yorker and gives the transgender community the chance to self-identify. It’s a challenge for transgender people to have documents that reflect how they identify. Now they can do that at the state level. It is really historic and it was really important to get it done. It sends the message that we are inclusive and respectful. Whatever we can do to promote that message we will. We were very supportive as a council–it wasn’t our vote but the state vote–in favor of marriage equality. Thankfully, we are finally seeing it here. We have been very supportive of GENDA (Gender Expression Non Discrimination Act), which has not passed at the state level but which would provide greater rights to the transgender community . . . Any sort of discrimination that exists, any inequity that exists, I am going to work hard to try to break that down and make sure we advance a more progressive, inclusive agenda.

5. You have been a strong advocate for immigration reform. President Barack Obama’s second term is soon coming to end, yet no immigration reform has been passed despite the promise he made during his first campaign. How do you feel about that?

There have been levels of disappointment that we have not seen any actions sooner and particularly in the first two years. He did have the ability with a Democratic Senate and Congress. So this was disappointing. Having said that, obviously we were very excited and glad to see parents included and the expansion of DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival). We were already thinking as a city–because I have been having conversations with the mayor – of how we put more resources into groups that are already helping our immigrant community. Now the case in court in Texas has put a hold on it but we want to see it proceed. It is important that the executive order be allowed to move forward. We hope . And we have to be ready to be able to get the information out to our community so they can apply if they are eligible. It is overdue! Obviously, that does not take care of the fact that we still need a comprehensive immigration reform bill. But given our current Senate and Congress it’s looking less likely at the moment.

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