NorthJersey.com

Next Step For Family Protection: Paid Sick Days

The Record (NorthJersey.com) — Saturday, November 26, 2011

BY JEAN PIERCE
The Record

Governor Christie has proclaimed November Caregivers Awareness Month and has urged residents to support programs that assist caregivers in carrying out their vital role.

One vital program that allows New Jersey workers who need to take leave from work to care for a seriously ill family member or to bond with a newborn or adopted child is New Jersey's Family Leave Insurance Program. This past summer marked its two-year anniversary.

In its first two years of operation, more than 54,000 New Jersey workers have benefited from the program and were able to be the caregivers their families needed and that Governor Christie lauded in his recent proclamation.

Family leave insurance offers employees a great service that costs very little. In fact, the maximum contribution paid by New Jerseyans who contributed funds into a state insurance plan this year was a little under $18 annually. This contribution allows beneficiaries to collect two-thirds of their wages while they are caring for loves ones, giving them up to $559 per week.

Meanwhile employers pay nothing toward paid family leave, and none of the gloomy scenarios predicted by naysayers have occurred. Companies have not fled the state, and there have been no reports of employee misuse or decreased productivity.

The security and flexibility of family leave insurance are enormous.

Take Stefanie for example, a woman in her late 20s with elderly parents who needed dedicated care after a series of medical problems left both of them unable to care for themselves.

Because of the Family Leave Insurance Program, Stefanie was able to care for her parents and help them transition from a rehabilitation center back into their home. Not only did this save taxes — because a full-time home health care aide wasn't needed — it also allowed Stefanie's parents to be cared for by the person they trusted most, their daughter. During this time, Stefanie and her husband were able to stay current with their rent and bills and Stefanie's employer paid nothing. It is a win all around.

New Jersey took a big step forward when family leave insurance became law. But it can and must do more to make sure workers know about the program and how it can help them be good family members and good employees.

More must be done to educate employers — especially small businesses that may not have full-time human resource managers — about these cost-neutral benefits for their employees.

Additionally, broad community education to New Jersey workers and families, especially to low-income, rural and minority communities, on the availability of family leave insurance and how to access benefits has been lacking. The state should make every effort to get the word out through the distribution of educational materials and public service announcements.

New Jersey should also take some cues from neighboring states on how to better value families and strengthen our workforce. Connecticut passed paid sick days legislation in early July, Philadelphia passed paid sick days this fall, and a paid sick days bill has strong support in New York City Council.

Earned, paid sick days are critical to prevention and wellness in New Jersey and would help the 1.2 million workers who do not earn paid sick days on the job (38 percent of our workforce).

Without paid sick days, workers who are sick or have a sick child or parent are forced to choose between the job they need and the family they love when they or a family member gets sick.

In these difficult economic times, as more of us struggle to keep our jobs and our homes, family leave insurance and much-needed paid sick days mean more to New Jersey's families than ever before.

Jean Pierce is a member of the New Jersey Time to Care Coalition, a group of community, labor, women's, civic, research, citizen, family and child advocacy organizations dedicated to work and family balance issues.

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