Family Leave in New Jersey: Low Awareness Even As Public Support Remains High and Need Persists

Few New Jerseyans are aware of the state’s three-year-old Family Leave Insurance (FLI) program, even as public support of the program remains high and the need for it persists, according to a new analysis released this morning by the Center for Women and Work at Rutgers University and the New Jersey Time to Care Coalition (of which NJPP is a proud member).

The new analysis is based on an August 2012 poll conducted by the Eagleton Center for Public Interest Polling at Rutgers University, which reached out to over 900 registered New Jersey voters to assess their awareness and opinion of the state’s FLI program.

The poll’s key findings:

* Roughly six in ten respondents said they haven’t “seen or heard anything about” the FLI program. Awareness was particularly low among disadvantaged residents who may need the program most to offset the financial challenges associated with an unpaid caregiving leave.

* After hearing the program described, more than three in four (76%) said they had a favorable opinion of FLI; just 14% said they had an unfavorable opinion (10% said they did not know).

* Nearly one in five respondents (19.2%) reported using leave for pregnancy, bonding, or care of a family member with a serious illness between July 1, 2009 and the present. Fewer than half of these (45%) received pay or compensation during their leave.

The polling data is timely, as the Senate Labor Committee today considers legislation, sponsored by Sen. Barbara Buono, designed to increase awareness of the program (S-2044).

Under Sen. Buono’s bill, both employers and health care providers would be required to be more proactive in disseminating information about family leave rights under FLI and other programs. Employers would need to provide written notification to employees twice a year including information on the employee’s ability to use FLI in order to bond with a new child or care for a sick family member. Currently most employees only get this information when they are hired.

The bill would also charge the Department of Labor and Workforce Development with preparing a downloadable brochure for health care providers and medical institutions to post conspicuously that would provide information on family leave, temporary disability and unemployment compensation rights. Medical providers would also be required to give copies of the brochure to patients with health conditions that would likely require a family member to take paid family leave, including pregnancy.

The FLI program, which went into effect in July 2009 and is the second of its kind in the nation, provides wage replacement for workers during periods of family leave. For up to 12 months following a birth or adoption, or at any time for the care of a seriously ill family member, New Jersey workers – both women and men – are eligible for 6 weeks of partial wage replacement per year. To date, nearly 100,000 care claims have been approved, and over $225 million in FLI benefits have been distributed at no cost to employers or the state, since FLI is entirely self-funded through a payroll deduction.

I’ve been thinking about FLI quite a bit in the past few months, as I’m expecting the birth of my first child next month. Given my personal experience – which is surely shared by many expecting parents – it’s clear that the provisions in this bill, while subtle, would make a big difference to parents and would greatly increase awareness of this important program.

As any parent knows, having a child – particularly for the first time – is a confusing experience. You have to take in a lot of crucial information about pregnancy, birth and childcare in a relatively short period of time. Many working parents are too focused on health and medical details to seek out information on leave options on their own, so it makes sense to look to providers to help promote FLI – something they don’t necessarily do on their own now.

For example, while our doctor’s office has provided excellent care, it made no mention of FLI in its dozens of handouts and information sheets, which included a five-page packet on workplace laws relating to pregnancy that touched on similar issues like federal leave, disability insurance and unemployment insurance.

That’s a huge missed opportunity.

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