As the director of Working Families program at Rutgers University’s Center for Women and Work, Karen White has been an unabashed supporter of New Jersey’s Family Leave Insurance program in both philosophical and policy-wonkish ways.
But it was White’s mother who let her understand what the state’s policy really meant.
“My mother was diagnosed with kidney cancer,” White said, “and didn’t want to tell any of her children. She was scared that her children would lose their jobs” and their income taking care of her.
Five years ago, on May 2, 2008, New Jersey became one of three states to enact legislation providing short-term paid leave for employees bonding with a new child or caring for an ailing parent, spouse, or child.
“I think it is one of the most affordable insurance programs that is on the market,” White said.
Entirely employee-financed, employees contribute one-tenth of 1 percent of their pay, up to $31.20 a year, through payroll deduction. In return, if necessary, an employee can take up to six weeks of paid time off from work at two-thirds pay, for a maximum of $584 a week.
The program is related to the federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) and the New Jersey Family Leave Act, both 20 years old this year. But there are important differences.
The FMLA and New Jersey Family Leave Act provide job protection – meaning that people who qualify for leaves cannot lose their jobs while they are taking care of their families. But those acts do not provide income, and they only apply to companies with more than 50 employees.
The family leave insurance program provides benefits to employees at all companies, but does not protect the jobs of employees at small businesses.
The family leave insurance program extended New Jersey’s existing Temporary Disability insurance program – another payroll deduction program, charged to employers and employees, that provides wages for an employee recovering from an illness or pregnancy. New Jersey is one of five states, not including Pennsylvania or Delaware, to have a temporary disability insurance program.
“The difficulty is coordinating it all,” said Stefanie Riehl, assistant vice president of employment labor policy for the New Jersey Business and Industry Association.
She said there are different qualifications and forms for each program. Even if they chafe at the laws themselves, she said, New Jersey employers would at least like them to be easier to implement.
“There needs to be some streamlining where employers can get information, where they can see what documents are received,” she said. “A centralized website – that’s where we are focusing our efforts, because the likelihood of this law being repealed is slim to none.”
The association opposed the law as unnecessary and an administrative burden for employers.
Since family leave insurance went into effect in July 2009, $281.2 million has been paid out for 95,537 claims as of the end of April. The majority, 74,965, have been filed to allow parents time to bond with a new baby or a newly adopted child.
“Usage was what was expected, but the amount of time taken was shorter than expected,” said Philip Kirschner, president of the Business and Industry Association.
“I think that has to do with the economy,” he said. “People need the money and they can’t stay out for as long as they wish to.”
California was the first state to pass a family leave insurance program, followed by Washington state and New Jersey. But Washington never implemented its program.
In January, the Rutgers Center for Women and Work released an evaluation of the program.
“What we found is that a majority of people – about six in 10 – had not seen or heard anything about the program,” said White, a coauthor of the report. “Of those who did know, 20 percent did not know they could use it to care for a sick family member. They thought it was only to bond with a new child.”
As it turned out, White never had to use the leave or insurance to care for her mother. Her job provided enough flexibility without her going on leave, and her mother recovered.
“That I never had to take the leave was great,” White said, “but that I had the ability was a great comfort to me and my mother.”