Pro-Worker Bill Calls for Expanded Leave Time, Higher Compensation, More Family Member Coverage, Increased Job Protections & Greater Program Promotion
Sweeping legislation Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto crafted to improve New Jersey’s paid family leave program to ensure it works better for New Jersey families cleared the General Assembly on Thursday.
Also sponsored by Assembly Speaker Emeritus Sheila Oliver, Assemblyman Reed Gusciora and Assemblywoman Mila Jasey, the bill (A-4927) would expand leave times, provide higher compensation to those taking leave, cover more family members, improve job protections and boost awareness of the program.
The bill now awaits final legislative approval from the full Senate before heading to the Governor.
“This is an invaluable law, but it’s underused and needs improvement,” said Prieto (D-Hudson/Bergen). “New Jersey’s hard-working men and women deserve a program that can truly help them in their time of need, whether it’s caring for a loved one or welcoming a new family member. The 2009 law was a great first step that we all take pride in, but we also know it wasn’t quite enough. We need to do better – and this bill represents that big step forward.”
More than 155,000 people used New Jersey’s paid family leave to take care of a new child or a sick relative in the law’s first five years, but too few know the benefits exist or how to sign up, according to a study by Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health.
The law gives people six weeks off while collecting two-thirds of their pay, but it is capped at an amount set annually. The program is funded through employee payroll deductions of about 50 cents per week until they reach the yearly maximum contribution of $26.08.
Under this bill, the funding mechanism and deduction amount would not change.
The sponsors noted that the bill is supported by key advocates throughout the state, such as New Jersey Citizen Action, AARP, AFL-CIO, New Jersey Policy Perspective & New Jersey Main Street Alliance.
“This is smart, yet compassionate, policymaking,” said Oliver (D-Essex). “It’s no surprise that key advocates for working families, seniors, laborers and small businesses are supporting this legislation. They understand that improving wage compensation, boosting job protections and covering more family members will provide the economic security necessary to free employees to tend to the needs of a loved one. In turn, this will address a number of challenges we face as a society that, if ignored, will pose a greater burden on families, businesses and government resources.”
“This legislation is pro-worker, pro-family and pro-economy,” said Gusciora (D-Mercer/Hunterdon). “Studies show that family leave programs help businesses retain qualified, experienced workers, which in turn boosting their bottom line. However, our program, as it stands now, needs to be revamped to ensure that it actually delivers on the promise of providing workers with a livable wage and peace of mind to take time off to care for a loved one.”
“Strengthening New Jersey’s paid family leave program is about reinforcing our state’s commitment to working families,” said Jasey (D-Morris/Essex). “No one should feel that putting family first puts his or her economic security in jeopardy.”
“We need to build upon the existing law to make it better and more relevant to today’s working families,” Prieto added. “People can’t take advantage of this program if they don’t know about it and they won’t take advantage of it if it doesn’t help them. We’re going to change that and make this program something usable for anyone who needs it.”
Key provisions of the legislation include:
Increasing Leave Times and Flexibility
· Increasing the maximum number of weeks of family temporary disability leave benefits for a period of family temporary disability leave from 6 to 12 weeks.
· Providing that family temporary disability leave benefits for bonding with a newborn or an adopted child may be taken on an intermittent basis.
· Increasing intermittent leave from 42 days to 84 days, which can help parents and caretakers stay at work on a part-time basis while still caring for a sick loved one or bonding with a newborn.
Greater Benefits That Will Allow More Families to Take Advantage of the Program
· Expanding the amount that covered individuals would collect in benefits, allowing for more people to take advantage of the program in our high-cost state, with a focus on helping lower-income families in particular.
· Increasing the amount of weekly benefits from two-thirds of a claimant’s average weekly wage to 90 percent of that wage, up to a maximum of 78 percent of the state average weekly wage.
· Expanding the family members that individuals covered under the law may receive paid benefits to include siblings, grandparents, grandchildren and parents-in-law. Currently, family leave benefits are only available to care for children, spouses, domestic partners, civil union partners or parents of covered individuals.
· Allowing for leave to be taken to care for a family member who has been a victim of an incident of domestic violence or a sexually violent offense.
· Extending benefits to parents that have a child through the use of a surrogate.
Job Protections and Remedies
· Job protection for any participant employed by a business with 20 or more employees.
· Strengthening protections for program participants by specifying that an employer may not discharge, harass, threaten, discriminate or retaliate against an employee with respect to the compensation, terms, conditions, or privileges of employment on the basis that the employee took or requested leave to which the employee was entitled.
· Allowing an employee or former employee to institute a civil action in the Superior Court in the case of a violation of the bill’s anti-discrimination and anti-retaliation provisions.
Increasing Program Efficiency, Public Awareness, and Reporting of Program Data
· Requiring the state to implement goals for timely payment of family temporary disability benefits and require the Commissioner of Labor and Workforce Development to issue annual reports regarding efforts to attain those goals.
· Directing the state to disseminate information about the rights and responsibilities of employers and employees regarding family temporary disability benefits.
· Requiring the collection and timely reporting of data on program usage and characteristics of program participants, which will help policymakers make informed decisions on future changes to the program.
“Whether it’s caring for a sick family member, bonding with and caring for a new child, or helping a loved one through the terrible ordeal of domestic violence or assault, New Jersey families need a paid leave program that works for them, not against them,” Prieto added. “We need to move this law forward with common-sense progressive changes that everyone should be able to support. After all, a pro-worker state is a pro-business state. The two go hand-in-hand.”