NorthJersey.com

Robots Don't Need Paid Family Leave

The Record (NorthJersey.com) — Thursday, December 6, 2007

By MARY ELLEN SCHOONMAKER
RECORD COLUMNIST

Much of the opposition to paid family leave is linked to fears it would be abused. During the Senate and Assembly races this past fall, some candidates told The Record that workers would try to take advantage of their employers. They'd apply for paid family leave whenever they could or use it to extend their vacations or even to recover from a "hangnail."

The thinking seems to be that workers shouldn't be encouraged to take time off, and that paid family leave would tempt them irresistibly to do so. Obviously, it's inconvenient to lose a worker for several weeks.

But reality intrudes on all of us in all kinds of inconvenient ways. Employees get sick. So do their spouses, domestic partners, children and parents. They get pregnant or adopt children. If employers could hire a workforce of robots or clones, then there would be no need for sick leave or maternity leave or family leave.

Maybe that "Brave New World" is coming sooner than we think. But it's not here yet.

Paid family leave is an acknowledgment that people have lives and commitments outside the workplace. It's an acknowledgment that sometimes those commitments become overwhelming.

Under the measure the Legislature is considering, a worker would need verification by a doctor of an illness in the family before taking the paid leave. It wouldn't be granted for a hangnail. More likely, it would be used by someone whose husband or wife or aging parent has terminal cancer or someone who just adopted a toddler from China. (It would be paid entirely by a fund supported by all New Jersey workers and cost less than $1 a week.)

An offensive notion

The thought that a worker would take paid family leave as a lark is offensive. People I know are juggling their commitments to job and family all the time. They squeeze in hospital or nursing home visits to aging parents in the early morning or in the evening. They take their kids to the doctor or dentist on their lunch hour. They do the best they can navigating a system that isn't very family-friendly.

They are already adept at managing emergencies and small crises without taking leave. It helps if they have a boss who allows them some flexibility when they need it – like working from home when your kid has the flu. But that's not always the case.

Paid family leave isn't likely to be abused all that much because a lot of people can't afford it. Even in affluent North Jersey, many are already living paycheck to paycheck. The cost of food, housing and everything else is so high that paid family leave – which would cover two-thirds of a weekly paycheck up to a maximum of $502 – would only be a last resort.

It's a safety net for a short-term situation, but that's all it is. No one is going to be sunning on the beach in Aruba on paid family leave.

Finally, there is one compromise already in the legislation that's going to make paid family leave very unattractive for all but the most desperate. For workers in companies with fewer than 50 employees, there will be no job protection under this measure. In other words, if you take paid family leave, you might not get your job back. The employer is under no obligation to hold it open for you.

That provision is meant to protect small businesses that may need to hire someone right away to fill that position.

Little job protection

But many small-business workers don't make much money to begin with. They don't have a lot of job protection anyway. They are the last people who can afford to risk losing their job. So the situation is likely to be pretty dire for them to take that gamble and apply for paid family leave.

That's too bad, because serious illness and aging parents and new babies happen to everyone, regardless of income level. People with disposable income or executive privilege or seniority often have a lot more leeway to deal with a crisis than the rank and file.

Paid family leave is a way to guarantee everyone at least the option of a few weeks to deal with whatever life throws at them without having to worry about the next paycheck as well.

It's an acknowledgment that none of us is a robot.

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