Commentary

Family leave bill misses opportunity, leaving behind 1M workers who need job protections

January 3, 2024 6:51 am

A new bill before lawmakers would expand existing family leave protections to businesses with five or more workers, down from the current 30. (Getty Images)

The New Jersey Assembly recently missed the opportunity to meaningfully reform the state’s paid family leave program — known as New Jersey family leave insurance (FLI). In passing A5166, the Assembly failed to address major barriers involving job protection that keep more than 1 million New Jerseyans from accessing paid family leave.

That’s 1 million state residents unable to take time from work to care for loved ones such as a newborn child or dying parent or spouse recovering from surgery, without risking the loss of their jobs. Many of these directly affected are low-income workers, women employees, and workforces holding multiple jobs. All New Jersey employees pay into the program, but access to it is far from equitable.

Prior to the bill passing the Assembly floor, the NJ Time to Care Coalition and organizational partners urged amendments to the bill, which would expand existing family leave protections to businesses with five or more workers. Repeatedly, concerned voices gave testimonies in front of legislators, pointing out the gaps in the proposed legislation.

But legislators were not responsive to a more inclusive approach that would bring greater racial and social equity to the program. The result? A bill that, while making some strides in the right direction, leaves too many vulnerable individuals exposed to the harsh realities of job insecurity.

For instance, the jobs of workers who have not been employed for a full year or who have not worked 1,000 hours would not be protected after they take family leave as the bill is written. The bill also leaves out survivors of domestic and sexual violence from these job protections despite being eligible for paid leave benefits.

Legislators, to their credit, are seeking to expand job protection to more New Jersey workers by lowering job protection thresholds for companies from 30 employees to five employees. But by not addressing the other barriers, too many workers remain unprotected, and employees and employers alike will continue to be confused by the layers of eligibility for the program.

These barriers and a lack of clarity disproportionately affect women, low-wage workers, workers of color, and those with less education, as they more often work for small businesses, work part-time, or change jobs more frequently. These are workers who need paid family leave the most.

Without amendments to the bill, New Jersey workers at the lower end of the economic spectrum will continue to face impossible choices between the care of those who rely on them and their economic survival.

It’s no wonder New Jersey’s 15-year-old program remains woefully under-utilized, and that we are no longer leaders on paid leave. Nine other states have integrated job protection as part of their state’s paid family leave benefits, and they do not require the high number of hours worked, or time employed, as New Jersey does.

The good news is both the New Jersey Assembly and the Senate can greatly strengthen A5166 before the lame-duck session ends next week. No one person or family is ever exempt from the realities of life that will require accessible, secure use of paid family leave. The benefits of the program should extend to all workers, but particularly our most vulnerable ones. It’s time to give New Jerseyans the paid family leave program we all need and deserve.

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Dena Mottola Jaborska
Dena Mottola Jaborska

Dena Mottola Jaborska was promoted to executive director of New Jersey Citizen Action (NJCA) in January of 2021. She previously directed NJCA’s advocacy and organizing work. Dena is a trained community organizer, an experienced coalition builder, and an accomplished advocate who has worked across many issues over her 30-year career advancing social justice. As an advocate she recently led the effort to adopt a minimum earned sick days standard for New Jersey, as well as the effort to expand the state’s paid leave program, making it more supportive or low wage, working people, and everyone.

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