Is Jersey's Paid Family Leave Law A Success?

July 28, 2011 - 4:04pm

By Jake Blumgart

Last November, the New Jersey Star Ledger published an editorial celebrating the success of their state’s paid family leave law. I missed it when it first came out, but its key point deserves to be highlighted.

Paid family leave was supposed to signal the end of the world as we know it — six weeks off for employees to care for a sick child or parent at two-thirds salary, paid for by a payroll tax.

After it was signed into law in 2008, we were warned it would destroy business. Entrepreneurs would dash across the border to other states that don’t treat businesses so cruelly. Employees would abuse the system.

Pretty scary. Hasn’t happened.

As it turns out, New Jersey’s paid family leave has been working just fine. The state hasn’t been converted into some kind of Stalinist hellscape, as predicted in the ravings of Steven Lonegan, then-mayor of Bogota (R) and current executive director of the New Jersey chapter of Americans forProsperity. “This socialist diktat takes feel-good politics to a new level,” he claimed. “The basic argument for this socialist propaganda is the necessity for Big Brother to subsidize an army of breastfeeding single mothers.” Not single mothers! The horror....the horror....

On a slightly less manic note, Arthur Maurice, vice president of the New Jersey Business and Industry Association, feared that employees would wantonly abuse the system. “This is a terrible signal to send,” he fretted. “It just interferes with the workplace. This should be left to employers and their workers….[How can employers ensure that workers are properly taking time off?] How do you police any of that?”

It turns out Maurice’s fellow citizens aren’t as depraved as he feared. There hasn’t been a rash of tenuously excused absences from work. The cause of the Star Ledger’s editorial was an announcement that the program’s expenses didn’t necessitate the $35 annually deducted from every NJ worker’s paycheck. In fact, the deduction will be halved, to $17 annually. According to the editorial, New Jersey’s “labor department estimated the cut puts $57 million back in the taxpayers’ pockets.”

However, there may be a dark side to paid family leave savings. Many workers may not be using their because they are afraid they’ll lose their jobs. Leave taken under the paid New Jersey program is not job protected, in contrast to the federal Family Medical Leave program, which provides job protected, unpaid time off.

Employee knowledge of the program could be another unfortunate reason for New Jersey’s savings. Recent research on a similar state-level paid leave program in California found that only half of the eligible workers were aware of the program’s existence. “Everybody supports it, but the workers who most need it are least aware of it,” Ruth Milkman, one of the authors of the California study, said in an interview with Labor Notes.

In short, I'm glad the groundbreaking New Jersey paid family leave program is considered a success.  But more research needs to be done if we are to truly celebrate its effects.

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