The Times, Trenton

Family Leave Insurance: It's The Right Thing To Do

The Times, Trenton — Tuesday, January 2, 2007

By Jon Shure and Ev Liebman

Suppose your child had just been diagnosed with a life-threatening disease. Not a pleasant thought, to be sure. You'll need extended time off from work, but can you afford to be without a paycheck?

Or maybe the news is much happier: You're having a baby. You'd like time bonding with the little one before going back to work. But how will you pay the bills?

It could be that your kids are fine, but one of your parents recently suffered a stroke and it's up to you to make all the nursing home arrangements.

These things can, and do, happen to anyone, at any time. When they do, we could all use some help. It's for times like these that family leave insurance is a rational, compassionate alternative to today's status quo.

The NJ Time to Care coalition has a simple plan to give working men and women protection when they need it. Everyone who works In New Jersey now pays into the state's Temporary Disability Insurance fund. By paying a little more – on average, less than a dollar a week – the rules that apply now to your own disability would also cover you for up to 12 weeks a year to care for a sick child, spouse or parent or bond with a newborn, adopted or foster child. The fund to which you contributed would pay you two-thirds of your salary, up to $488 a week.

A recent survey by the Eagleton Center for Public Interest Polling at Rutgers University found that 78 percent of New Jerseyans support the coalition's plan, with only 16 percent opposed.

Almost 25 percent of those polled said that they or their spouse had taken time off in the past five years to care for a sick Family member or care for a newborn or adopted child. Well over half took less than six weeks, and nearly 40 percent of those who took tame off did so without pay. Here, gender differences were dramatic – with 41 percent of men saying they received more than half their pay, compared to 23 percent of women.

State Sen. Stephen Sweeney has introduced legislation that would bring family leave insurance to New Jersey workers, making this the second state, after California, to provide it. But the path is by no means easy. Some business organizations in New Jersey are making family leave insurance sound like the end of the world, saying they will oppose it with everything they've got. We're sorry to hear that, and we think they are dead wrong about this program and its impact.

One objection they raise is the cost. But let's be clear: The current version of family leave insurance is funded entirely by workers' contributions to TDI. Employers won't pay a penny more. The fund will be big enough to meet the needs because in any given year, the vast majority of workers won't take any family leave, and those who do won't need 12 weeks.

Business also expresses fears that workers will abuse the system, taking time off when they don't need it. C'mon now! Some of the people who need this protection the most are low-income workers who barely get by on what they make now. Weeks off at two-thirds pay wouldn't exactly be paradise. Besides, as with disability today, verification from a doctor will be required.

Then there is the productivity issue. Some businesses say they will suffer from having workers gone for long periods. But the reality is that many people who need time take it now. They just don't get paid. And many others continue to show up for work though their hearts and minds are with an ill relative. That can't be good for productivity. With family leave insurance, a business can afford to pay overtime or temp costs because it isn't paying the worker. Morale is better, too, and there is a greater chance that when the leave time is over, the worker will come back eager to do a good job, not looking for another one.

Fortunately, these business groups don't speak for all New Jersey employers. Most employers want to do right by their workers and many tell us they wish they could give people time off to deal with family issues. Small businesses want to compete with big firms that do offer paid leave. That's why more business owners are coming to see that family leave insurance actually helps rather than hurts them.

It is important that today's economy be viewed through the lens of 21st-century demands on employees. One of society's greatest challenges is balancing work and family. We value work for its role in producing and sustaining economic growth. We increasingly recognize the importance of strong families in building healthy and dynamic communities. But finding a proper balance between the demands of work and the needs of families is difficult. More mothers with children work than ever before. More single-parent households exist. Most people must work to provide for their families but are torn between the demands of their jobs and the needs of their children, spouses and aging parents. At the same time, businesses are finding it difficult to recruit, train and retain skilled workers.

Public policy must play a role in helping to resolve this situation; this is too big for people to solve on their own.

Jon Shure is president of New Jersey Policy Perspective and Ev Liebman is program director for New Jersey Citizen Action. Both groups are in the NJ Time to Care coalition. For more on family leave insurance, go to www.njtimetocare.rutgers.edu.