If the Law Exists, Why Aren’t People Using It?
In the 1989 blockbuster, "Field of Dreams," Kevin Costner famously heard a voice saying, "If you build it, he [Shoeless Joe Jackson] will come." While those of us who advocate for better workplace policies to support employees are convinced that paid family and medical leave really IS a "field of dreams," we cannot assume that after we've built it, they will come. That's why New Jersey Senator Barbara Buono sponsored bill S-2044 -- legislation that focuses on raising statewide awareness of paid family and medical leave benefits and eligibility in New Jersey. Senator Buono has recognized that simply having a paid leave law is not enough to ensure that employees will avail themselves of it, particularly when the law is new. She, therefore, is proposing that New Jersey should actively promote the law's benefits and eligibility. Only two other states in the nation, California and Washington, have passed paid family and medical leave laws, although Washington has pushed back its start date to 2015 because of a lack of funding. Like New Jersey, California's implementation is marked by a lack of awareness of the law by many eligible employees throughout the state.
States are taking action because the federal government only provides for unpaid leave. The 1993 Family and Medical Leave Act provides up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave for the care of a new child and to address serious medical issues. The Act secures the jobs of employees in companies with more than 50 workers; to be eligible, workers in those companies must have been on the job for a year and must work a certain number of hours. The result is that about 50 percent of private sector workers do not even have access to unpaid family and medical leave; for low-income workers, this results in forgoing taking care of a family member, child, or themselves or taking the time without pay and losing wages and possibly a job.
Implementation of paid leave laws in states is a giant step forward. The California and New Jersey laws, although differing in detail, generally allow five to six weeks of partially paid family or medical leave.
Unfortunately, many eligible workers are unaware of these laws, which are designed to help them meet their family and health concerns. While California's Paid Family Leave (PFL) law includes a requirement that employers inform their new hires about the benefits and eligibility of the law, the requirement is limited and awareness is alarmingly low. This is why a variety of non-governmental organizations and coalitions, like PaidFamilyLeave.org, have stepped in to help publicize the law further. In 2011, the Center for Economic and Policy Research and the Murphy Institute conducted a poll of California registered voters. While over the years awareness has increased, the report showed that well under half (42.7 percent) of the respondents had seen or heard anything about California's PFL program, even though it was passed in 2002. Awareness was unfortunately significantly lower among disadvantaged groups, including those with lower household incomes, limited education, and renters, as opposed to homeowners. These people need the benefits of PFL the most, and yet awareness is lowest among this demographic. You can access the full results of the report here >>
In New Jersey, a recent 2012 poll by the Eagleton Center for Public Interest Polling at Rutgers University asked registered New Jersey voters about Family Leave Insurance (FLI). Around six in 10 responded that they had not "seen or heard anything about" the program. Moreover, awareness of the three-year-old program was much lower among those who could use the benefits most: low-income employees, disadvantaged citizens, and immigrants.
This is why Senator Barbara Buono has introduced her bill to raise awareness of New Jersey's FLI. The bill would require the Department of Labor and Workforce Development to create a downloadable brochure advertising FLI benefits and eligibility that health care providers can post on their websites. The bill would also require medical providers to distribute this brochure to patients -- like pregnant workers -- who could qualify for Family Leave Insurance. The legislation would also call for employers to write a notice to employees two times a year informing them of their ability to take paid family leave. All of these actions are aimed at informing the people who would benefit most from the FLI about its benefits so they can take advantage of them.
There are tremendous advantages to an individual when paid family and medical leave is offered; no one should have to choose between caring for a loved one or receiving a greatly needed paycheck. CLASP encourages other states considering paid leave legislation to incorporate provisions that require multiple ways to reach out to eligible workers. To those looking to build a paid family and medical leave act, Senator Buono's legislation offers some concrete and important ideas.
After building a field of dreams, we need to light the marquee so that people can find their way to paid leave.