In Focus: Sick Days and Family Medical Leave

Apr 15, 2015  |  PERMALINK »

One year later, the results of Jersey City’s Earned Sick Days law are promising

By Felicia J. Onuma

One year after Jersey City’s earned sick days ordinance took effect, the verdict is in: workers and business are both winning big. Contrary to opponents’ predictions, a new study shows that more than one-third of employers have experienced higher employee productivity, made better-quality hires, and had less employee turnover since implementing the law. Earned Sick Days in Jersey City: A Study of Employers and Employees at Year One, published by Rutgers’ Center for Women and Work, echoes the findings of numerous other reports on the effects of earned sick days laws on employers.

In September 2013, Jersey City became the first jurisdiction in New Jersey to adopt an earned sick days ordinance. The law, which took effect in January 2014, enables workers in businesses with 10 or more employees to earn up to 5 paid sick days each year. Workers in businesses with 9 or fewer employees can earn up to five unpaid sick days.

For most Jersey City businesses, compliance with the law has not been detrimental. Most employers have observed little change in employee behavior. Moreover, many have noted significant benefits. More than 92 percent of employers reported no change in the use of paid sick days following implementation of the law; another 4 percent reported that their employees were taking fewer sick days. More than one-third of employers reported more productivity, less turnover, and improved quality of new hires.

As expected, Jersey City’s law is also helping workers. More than half of Jersey City employees reported earning at least one sick day since the law took effect. The percentage is even higher (60 percent) among workers who have been with the same employer for more than a year. Furthermore, nearly 72 percent of employees who had more sick days due to the law reported higher job satisfaction. 

Jersey City’s experience is not unique. In other jurisdictions with sick leave laws, the majority of employers are complying with standards and reaping their benefits. In San Francisco and  Connecticut, 82 percent and 93 percent of employers, respectively, provide paid sick time to their employees as required by law. Further, the majority of San Francisco and Connecticut employers, as well as those in Seattle, reported no change in costs, profitability, customer service, or employee morale due to earned sick days standards.

New Jersey municipalities are leading the charge on sick days nationwide. Across the state, Jersey City and seven other cities (Newark, Passaic, East Orange, Patterson, Irvington, Trenton, and Montclair), have implemented earned sick days laws. This report on Jersey City’s experience offers encouragement and insight to other jurisdictions as they work to implement their own laws.

Apr 10, 2015  |  PERMALINK »

Left on Their Own: New Study Shows Unemployment Benefits Often Elude Family Caregivers

By Liz Ben-Ishai

A new report from AARP, CLASP, and National Employment Law Project (NELP) shines a light on the opportunities and shortcomings of unemployment insurance (UI) benefits as a support system for people who seek work after leaving their jobs to care for sick or disabled family members. The report, Access to Unemployment Insurance Benefits for Family Caregivers, combines legal analysis of state UI rules and in-depth interviews with UI agency officials for a comprehensive overview of the issues. It finds that, though some states have UI rules in place to accommodate family caregivers, the current system is falling short for many workers, as a result of both outdated rules and improper implementation.

The story of Laura, a worker in Arizona, provides a window into the implications of the policy findings. Like so many adults in the U.S., Laura lost her parents after an extended period of caregiving. The care Laura provided was invaluable to her parents, but came at a high price to her own economic security—an outcome that reflects our country’s weak safety net for caregivers. Even when the law suggested that there should have been supports available to her, the system failed Laura, denying her the benefits she was eligible to receive.

Laura’s father, who suffered from lymphoma, was struggling to care for his wife, who had Alzheimer’s. As his cancer treatments escalated, he could no longer care for both of them. Laura quit her job in Phoenix and moved back to her hometown, where she found another position. She worked during the day and then tended to her parents at night, preparing meals for the following day and assisting them as needed, and returning to work in the morning to start the cycle again.

Laura had no choice but to quit her job when her father became reliant on a feeding tube and required 24-hour care.   She says, “Financially, it was extremely strained for me. I just paid the necessities. The hit on my credit score over the past year due to not being able to pay bills will take me years to repair now.”

When Laura’s dad passed away, her ailing mother’s monthly income was significantly reduced, so hiring a caregiver or moving to assisted living was not an option. “Once again the decision was made,” says Laura, referring to the need to devote herself fully to her mother’s care. After several more months, her mother, too, passed away.

When she was forced to quit her job to care for her parents, Laura applied for unemployment insurance (UI) benefits. Laura lives in a state—Arizona—with UI rules that recognize family reasons as valid for voluntarily quitting a job; this means that someone who quits to care for a family member should not be automatically disqualified for UI on this basis. However, when she applied for UI, she says, “I answered the questions honestly. I said, yes, I had voluntarily quit. The form asked for an explanation and I wrote out a lengthy explanation.” She received a letter stating that her application had been denied because she had voluntarily quit her job.

Says Laura, “I wasn’t surprised because, you know, that’s what you hear on the street, if you quit you are not eligible.”

Laura’s experience says a lot about the need for better implementation of UI rules, including effective outreach to potential recipients and their employers. And it reinforces the messages we heard during interviews with advocates and agency officials conducted for the new report. An Arizona advocate told us that in her state, quits are almost automatically disqualified, despite exceptions in the rules, including those for caregivers.

It’s not just faulty implementation of state rules that makes UI inaccessible for far too many caregivers. In many places, state rules themselves create serious obstacles. In most states, workers must be seeking full-time employment (unless they were previously working part-time) in order to qualify for benefits—a requirement that is difficult to meet for those who continue to provide some care. The full-time rule means there is often a significant lag time between when a worker leaves her job and when she can become eligible for benefits. Moreover, many states unrealistically expect workers to engage in negotiations with employers to try to arrange for accommodations prior to quitting their jobs—even when they are certain that they have no alternative but to quit.

There are millions of people like Laura in the U.S.—and there will be even more in the years to come, as so many Americans experience the need to care for their aging loved ones. The UI system is one avenue by which we could provide some support for hardworking people who are experiencing some of life’s most difficult periods of time. We need to fix the UI system—and ensure other supports, such as paid family leave—in order to promote productive, healthy, and equitable communities.

Read the report >>

Apr 1, 2015  |  PERMALINK »

More State and Local Governments Now Offer Paid Family Leave

By Felicia Onuma

Today, the United States is the only developed nation that does not guarantee workers paid maternity leave. It also trails most other countries in offering paid paternity, family, medical, and sick leave. Because each parent works in most families with children, the lack of a nationwide paid family leave law makes it difficult to balance jobs and parenting. In the absence of federal action, some state and local governments have taken the lead by offering paid family or parental leave to their public employees.

Without paid family leave, many Americans are forced to cobble together unused sick, personal, or vacation days to care for a new child.  In most cases, this makeshift leave is far less than they need. For other workers, the situation even is worse. Nearly half of all workers in the lowest 25 percent of wage earners have no paid time off (personal, sick, family, or vacation leave). Certain employees who meet tenure requirements at companies with 50 or more workers are able to access unpaid, job-protected leave through the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). This leave can be used to recover from child birth, bond with a new child, care for a sick family member, or address personal health problems. But 40 percent of workers are not covered by FMLA, and many who are can’t afford to take unpaid leave.

State and city governments employ over 19 million people. Contrary to political rhetoric, many state and city employees receive less compensation (including pay and benefits) than their private-sector counterparts. For these workers, access to paid leave is critical to family economic security. Fortunately, a growing number of states and cities are stepping up to provide this important benefit.

Allegheny County, PA and Seattle, WA are the most recent jurisdictions to institute paid leave policies for public employees. According to Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald, implementing this policy “is the right thing to do for our employees, for their children, and for our county.” He noted: “We benefit as a community when employees succeed at work and at home.” In an op-ed, Seattle Mayor Ed Murray and City Councilmember Jean Godden declared: “It is time for our country to recognize the importance of this issue and respond with appropriate policies that support our workers and their families.” Murray and Godden further explain how paid leave benefits workplace gender equity, child development, and business.

Allegheny County will provide six weeks of paid parental leave for full-time employees who have worked for the county for at least a year, while Seattle will offer its employees four weeks of paid parental leave.

Heidi Goldberg, program director for early childhood and family economic success at the National League of Cities Institute for Youth, Education, and Families, observes that “cities such as Seattle that are establishing paid parental leave for city employees are modeling strong policies that are good for both business and for communities. Ensuring that parents can care for their children without losing their jobs does a great deal to equalize the playing field for low-income families while boosting a city’s overall economic health through increased job stability.”

Other cities and counties offering paid family leave to government workers include San Francisco, CA; Pittsburgh, PA; St. Paul, MN; Brooklyn Park, MN; St. Petersburg, FL; Chicago, IL; Austin, TX and King County, WA. Six states have also enacted paid family leave policies: California, Illinois, New Jersey, Ohio, Rhode Island, and Virginia.

Resources on state and local government employee paid leave policies and other paid leave policy developments are available here:

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