NJ lawmakers want to trump the President and expand paid family leave but few use the benefit

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President Donald Trump's 2018 budget will push for the creation of a federal paid family leave program that will provide families after the birth or adoption of a child with six weeks of paid leave.

Pushing for a paid family leave program makes good on a promise the president made during the 2016 campaign. During a September 2016 campaign stop in Pennsylvania candidate Trump rolled out a series of work-family policies, including a plan for six weeks of paid maternity leave.

But Democratic state lawmakers announced a proposal to expand New Jersey's paid family leave program to allow workers who miss work to take care of a sick relative, newborn or newly adopted child to collect more of their missed pay.

New Jersey is one of just a few U.S. states to offer family leave insurance, which is funded through small employee payroll deductions.

State Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester), who sponsored the original program, and state Sen. Patrick Diegnan (D-Middlesex) said they want it to offer workers 12 weeks of benefits and increase the weekly benefits to 80 percent.

Benefits would be capped at 53 percent of the state's average wage. The weekly payout is currently capped at $633 a week.

Only three percent of private employees nationwide have access to paid family leave, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The United States is the only industrialized nation not to offer paid family leave.

New Jersey's 8-year-old program, modeled after California's, provides wage replacement up to six weeks off to care for a newborn, newly adopted child or close family member who is ill.

The cost is paid completely by workers at an average of 50 cents a week. The 0.1 percent payroll tax can't exceed $33.50 a year.

Employers with fewer than 50 employees do not have to guarantee workers will have a job waiting for them when they return, however.  That privilege only exists under the N.J. Family Leave law, which applies to employers with 50 or more employees.

New Jersey Policy Perspective a Trenton think tank that supports the benefit, reported in April that there were 203,000 insurance claims approved during 2009-15, paying out $507.1 million in benefits.

But too few workers know the benefits exist or how to sign-up, a study by the Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health released in 2016.

Only twelve percent of those eligible use the benefit in New Jersey, while 17 percent in California and 13 percent in Rhode Island do.

“Employees don’t take advantage of the benefit because there is no job protection. They can get the benefit and still get fired unless their employer approves time off,” says John Sarno president of the Employers Association of New Jersey.

“Doubling the benefit is a meaningless gesture if you don’t have job protection,” he adds.

According to the N.J. Department of Labor and Workforce Development, 1,358,107 workers – or about 42 percent of the state private workforce - are employed at firms with fewer than 50 employees.

Neither the Administration’s proposed budget nor the Sweeney-Diegnan proposal require employers to give time off or to guarantee to ensure that a worker’s job will be available upon return.