If the Law Exists, Why Aren't People Using It?

Nov 13, 2012

By Ariana Mozafari

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.

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