Democrats seek to double NJ’s paid family leave benefits
TRENTON — Nearly a decade after New Jersey enacted a paid family leave program that supporters of the concept say is woefully underutilized, the Legislature is moving to improve it — higher pay, for more weeks, for more purposes.
Under bill S2528, which was advanced Thursday by the Senate Labor Committee, workers could receive paid leave for 12 weeks, rather than six. They would receive 90 percent of their regular pay, rather than two-thirds. And the maximum payment, now capped at $633, would jump to around $1,200.
Renee Koubiadis, executive director of the Anti-Poverty Network of New Jersey, said most low-wage workers can’t afford to take family leave at the current levels, which she said caps out at about 200 percent of the federal poverty threshold, too low for a high-cost state like New Jersey.
“Expanding the wage replacement and raising the wage cap for the family leave insurance program is much needed for working who are just barely surviving on low wages as it is,” Koubiadis said.
Last year, an estimated 3.9 million workers paid into the fund. There were 34,050 eligible claims, including 28,707 for bonding with a newborn or adopted child, and 5,343 to care for a family member. In all, almost $94 million in claims were paid, with the average claim costing $2,756 and lasting five weeks.
Advocates for the program welcomed the proposed changes but said it could go farther to encourage participation.
Eric Richard, the legislative affairs director for the New Jersey State AFL-CIO, said the bill “has a lot of very, very good provisions” but would be stronger if it further expanded job protection.
Currently, job protections are ensured at workplaces with more than 50 employees. The proposal expands the protection to provide workplaces of 30 or more employees, but Richard said the leaves out a lot of people.
“The folks that are working for those employers, 30 or less, are still paying into a fund, the paid family leave fund, that they cannot utilize with the fear of losing their jobs,” Richard said.
“The program can look shiny and great and attractive and delicious, but if it’s locked away and you’re too afraid to lose your job, you’re not going to use the program, no matter how great it is,” said Dena Mottola Jaborska, associate director for New Jersey Citizen Action.
That’s not to say proponents of the plan dislike the bill.
Jaborska said it brings the benefit to a livable wage in New Jersey. They like the idea of allocating $1.5 million to promote awareness of the program. And they like that it expands the definition of family to include siblings, grandparents, grandchildren, parents-in-law and “chosen family,” such as friends and neighbors.
Business groups are less enthused.
Christina Renna, vice president of the Chamber of Commerce Southern New Jersey, said the proposal is another mandate that will cost businesses for overtime, temp workers and compliance attorneys.
“It is disappointing to see this paid family leave expansion measure being pushed so quickly after paid sick leave was just passed,” Renna said.
Renna questioned if the current payroll tax can support it.
“If not, if it’s not sustainable, then where does the tax get increased?” Renna said. “Again, we’re going to be talking about yet another tax increase to be able to enact this doubling of the size of our program.”
Workers currently pay up to $30.33 a year in taxes to support the paid family leave program, which is levied at 0.09 percent on the first $33,700 in income. Currently, it’s projected that it would reach $30.51 next year, but that analysis doesn’t take into account changes to the program.
The assessment is set at the rate needed to ensure the fund has 125 percent of the amount of benefits expected to be paid over the following year.
The bill was advanced by a vote of 3-1, with one vote to abstain.
A version of the proposal was vetoed last legislative session, before Gov. Phil Murphy replaced Gov. Chris Christie in January.