Sweeney: The Case for Expanding Paid Family Leave in NJ

A woman holding a newborn baby. Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

Imagine you were the parent to one of the 102,199 babies born in 2015.

You may have been surrounded by family and friends or just a select few. The doctor probably gave you a lot of instructions and you may have felt overwhelmed. One thing that has helped new parents is New Jersey’s Paid Family Leave Insurance (FLI) program. Like Temporary Disability Insurance, FLI is paid into only by employees. This year, no employee will pay more than $33.50 for this benefit. In return, when that employee or their spouse gives birth or adopts a child, or if their spouse, parent, or dependent child gets seriously ill and needs care, they are able to take up to six weeks at two-thirds their weekly pay, up to $633.

This program has been lauded by advocacy groups, health professionals and businesses. However, a majority of eligible employees are still not taking the benefits of the program.

With the bill I sponsored, more employees will be able to enjoy the benefits they pay into. Not only will the time they can spend with their newborn, newly adopted children or seriously ill family member double, they will no longer have to weigh the benefits between that time spent and a large cut in their pay check.

I know firsthand the importance of having time to take care of a newborn. My daughter was born premature and weighed only 2 pounds. I remember Lauren being so small that she fit into the palm of my hand. Our shock was furthered by a Down syndrome diagnosis shortly after her birth; our baby had Down syndrome. We were not prepared for the birth of a premature baby let alone for the news that she had Down syndrome.

I was lucky to have the time to bond with our daughter during her challenging first weeks of life; and I know that for many parents there is no choice. No one should be faced with the stark reality of not having a choice but to return to work. The bill I sponsored would increase the number of weeks one could take to 12 and increase the benefit to 90 percent of their weekly pay, up to $800.

When a family has a child, there are only new expenses. Mortgages, rents, gas, and utilities for the family stay the same, but in the case of a newborn, expenses for diapers, formula and all the things that can’t be hand-me-downs increases. Even with considerable savings, making the choice to stay home with your new child to bond and ensure they have the best start in life that they can have is hard. It becomes even harder when you aren’t sure you’ll have a job to return to. This is why I included job protections for employees in companies with 20 or more employees.

In 2008, when my original FLI bill was signed into law, business groups shouted from the rooftops that the sky would fall and it would destroy small businesses. That has not happened. Small businesses are now able to compete with larger companies who have been able to offer paid family leave as a benefit without paying into the system themselves. Now small businesses can attract highly qualified employees and retain them if and when they do decide to start a family or if a family member becomes ill.

While we do have data that say the program works for both families and businesses, we must also require the Department of Labor and Workforce Development to provide more information on how it is working and ways the department or the Legislature can help to improve the program. No system is perfect and efficiency and effectiveness can always be improved. This is why I’ve also required the department to provide much richer information on the program so any New Jersey citizen can look at how the money they are paying into the system is working to their benefit.

As a Democratic legislator, I am proud that I’m committed to making my party and this state family-first. Family is the bedrock of all that we do, and it is imperative that we do what is right for them, whether it is to support them while they are caring for a critically ill parent, or helping their newborn get the best start. When all of our families succeed, our state will, too. Paid Family Leave Insurance is critical to making certain that families have the resources they need to be successful and supported.

When there’s a program with proven success, why wouldn’t you want to do everything you can to bolster it and make sure everyone can access it? For a program that costs cents, it only makes sense to ensure it is as robust and useful for those paying into it as possible.

Steve Sweeney is the president of the New Jersey Senate and a Democrat who represents the 3rd legislative district in Cumberland, Gloucester and Salem counties.

Sweeney: The Case for Expanding Paid Family Leave in NJ