The New York Times

Tangible Family Values

The New York Times — Sunday, June 10, 2007

Just about everyone pays homage to the value of the family. But when it comes to helping families manage financially when a child or aging parent is sick, not much is offered. That is especially so for families with low incomes.

New Jersey's legislators could drastically improve that situation by passing a bill to provide partial pay to any worker who takes up to 10 weeks off to care for a sick family member, a newborn or a newly adopted child. The measure, which a committee cleared last month for consideration by the full State Senate, would be paid for with an increase of up to 92 cents a week in payroll taxes. The increase would be paid solely by workers.

While on leave, employees would collect two-thirds of their salaries, up to a maximum of $488 a week, but employers could require them to take up to two weeks of vacation before qualifying. Nevertheless, the state's Chamber of Commerce and other business groups adamantly oppose the measure, saying it would be costly in terms of lost productivity and overtime for workers having to fill in.

Business groups in California, the only state with paid family leave, raised similar concerns when the program was being considered more than three years ago, but an official in that state's Employment Development Commission says there have not been many recent complaints along those lines.

Except for the United States, just about every industrialized nation offers some sort of paid family leave. While New Jersey allows women to collect temporary disability benefits for up to 12 weeks after giving birth, it offers no pay for parents who just adopted children or for fathers of newborns. Sixty-six countries grant new fathers paid leave, with 31 of these countries offering fathers 14 or more weeks of paid leave, according to a report by the McGill Institute for Health and Social Policy. As of 2004, at least 37 countries offered paid leave to family members when their children were ill.

Since the 1990s, federal law has required employers of 50 or more workers to give unpaid family leave of up to 12 weeks. But many employees who need time off to care for a sick child, spouse or parent simply cannot afford to go without a paycheck. A study by the National Partnership for Women and Families found that 78 percent of workers who needed family leave said they could not afford to take it, and that almost 10 percent of those who did said they were forced to go on public assistance.

In testifying for the bill, Eileen Applebaum, director of the Rutgers Center for Women and Work, cited data showing that a quarter of the small companies in New Jersey pay no sick benefits and noted that many of them simply cannot afford to. With enactment of the paid family leave bill, these workers would get some financial protection.

Gov. Jon Corzine has expressed support for the concept of paid family leave, although not specifically for this bill. Still, leaders in both the Democratic-controlled Senate and Assembly have not said whether they will bring the measure to a vote. In the interest of simple fairness for low income workers and their families, they should do so before the summer recess.

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