Paid family leave was strongly resisted by business when New Jersey became the second state to offer it in 2009. Even though workers self-funded their benefit with another payroll tax, companies feared the disruption from staff taking up to six weeks (on top of any vacation and sick days).
We liked the idea but urged a delay, as the economy had just collapsed and businesses were struggling. A year later, we noted the fears weren’t justified. The numbers of N.J. workers taking paid family leave were reasonable — 155,000 in the five years to 2014, for example — and state vetting was fairly stringent, rejecting more than a tenth of claims (most beyond the law’s scope, some probably attempted scams).
Families have found paid leave a big help when they need to miss work to care for a newborn or newly adopted child, or an immediate relative who is sick.
New Jersey’s program has given working families something still relatively rare in the nation. As of last year, just 14 percent of U.S. civilian workers had access to paid family leave, the federal National Compensation Survey found.
The U.S. Family and Medical Leave Act allowed workers to take unpaid leave without losing their jobs. About half of Americans think the federal government should require employers to pay their employees at least partially when they take family leave, while the other half think employers should decide whether to provide paid leave, the Pew Research Center said in March. Just a third think paid leave should be a priority for federal lawmakers — putting the issue low on a list of 21 issues surveyed.
Given the success of the New Jersey program and its rarity (only three states currently offer paid family leave), leaving it alone to continue working well would seem like the best course. But the sponsor of the original law, Senate President Steve Sweeney, is back with a proposal to double the weeks of paid leave to 12. NJBIZ says the only compelling reason for the proposal is “to boost Sweeney’s and fellow Democrats’ chances” in the November election.
The amount paid during the leave also would be boosted, from two-thirds to 80 percent of weekly earnings. That would help low-wage workers, but since the benefit’s cap remains at about half of average state wages (currently $677 a week), anyone earning $44,000 a year or more wouldn’t see an increase in leave pay.
Sweeney says the payroll tax on workers wouldn’t be increased because the method of calculating their rate of contribution would be changed and diversions of program funds to other state spending would be prohibited. Maybe, but we’re not convinced workers wouldn’t wind up paying more.
The proposal also assumes that since businesses largely have handled six weeks of leave that 12 would be no problem. That’s not necessarily so, and given New Jersey’s worst-in-the-nation business-tax climate, adding to the burden on businesses seems unwise.
We suspect that since they already have a nation-leading paid family leave program, most workers would give a higher priority to cutting state spending and the taxes they pay. But that’s hardly ever considered, even in an election year.