Schoonmaker: Who's Afraid Of Paid Family Leave?

The Record ( — Thursday, March 6, 2008

By Mary Ellen Schoonmaker

As of now, the paid family leave bill approved by the state Senate appears headed for passage in the Assembly next week. And Governor Corzine has promised to sign it.

What exactly would that mean for New Jersey? The effect is likely to be all but negligible.

The legislation would allow workers to take up to six weeks off to care for a new baby or a sick relative at two-thirds of their pay – up to $524 a week. In an expansion of the state's temporary disability insurance program, all employees would incur a payroll deduction of up to 64 cents a week.

But while all workers would pay into the fund, the state's Office of Legislative Services has estimated that fewer than 40,000 workers a year – in a workforce of 4.1 million – would actually use the leave.

The most common use would probably be to extend basic maternity leave by several more weeks.

Now new mothers receive disability pay for six weeks after birth, and eight weeks if they have a Caesarean section. Under the family leave legislation, they would be able to take up to six more weeks.

That way, they would have up to three months at home with the new baby. Any mother – and any obstetrician – will tell you three months is the minimal time needed to recover physically, to begin to get enough sleep at night to be a productive employee during the day, and to bond with the new baby.

Six weeks of maternity leave, which is all that many workers can afford to take, is simply barbaric. That's the opinion of someone who has had three children and gone back to work in each case. I was lucky enough to have much longer maternity leaves, but I've interviewed women who went back to work at six weeks, and none of them was happy about it. They were more likely to be preoccupied, anxious and exhausted.

But don't expect every new working mother in New Jersey to take advantage of this opportunity.

Many would not be able to afford losing at least one-third of their salary, even for a few weeks, so soon after adding another mouth to feed to the family.

Risking loss of job

If they work for a company with fewer than 50 employees, they also risk losing their jobs completely – since the legislation doesn't require small businesses to keep their jobs open. That's a frightening scenario that most workers in small companies wouldn't dare to set in motion.

California's experience with paid family leave provides a sense of what could happen in New Jersey. It should reassure those who believe paid family leave would create drastic problems.

In California, just 1 percent of the workforce has filed claims seeking paid family leave. The use of the program has been so low, in fact, that one government study recommended urging more workers to use it.

Almost all of the claims – 90 percent – were filed by new mothers.

Most of the other 10 percent were filed by someone seeking time off to care for a spouse or a parent, often involving surgery or cancer. More than half went back to work in less than six weeks.

And most of the claims were filed by employees working for companies larger than 50 employees.

This data should put to rest many of the fears of paid family leave opponents in New Jersey. They say lazy workers will abuse the system and try to take time off for frivolous reasons. They say productivity will be hurt because companies won't be able to find replacements or do without the employees. They say businesses will not want to relocate to New Jersey because of paid family leave, or it will drive businesses already here to move to other states. The state's economy could be "destroyed."

Other interpretation

These opponents point to the news that New Jersey lost 9,500 private sector jobs in January, the most of any state. Paid family leave could mean the loss of even more jobs, they say.

But there's another way to interpret those figures. With the economy so shaky and the cost of living in this area so high, few workers are going to tempt fate by lowering their income for a few weeks or even risking the job itself. The situation would have to be awfully dire for them to consider it.

Even a few weeks more at home with a new baby may be seen as a luxury they simply can't afford.

Mary Ellen Schoonmaker is a Record editorial writer and columnist.

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