Here’s an update from The Mobility Agenda’s Senior Research Associate, Sarah Sattelmeyer.
Yesterday, the New Jersey Senate approved a (long time in the works!) paid family leave bill, which the Assembly passed in March. Governor Corzine has committed to signing this bill, which will make New Jersey the third state to adopt paid family leave.
For those of you who are not work-life policy junkies like myself, family and medical leave (which differs from paid sick days) can guarantee workers time away from work to recover from a personal health condition, for the birth or adoption of a child, to care for an elderly family member, and/or to incorporate additional longer-term family care needs.
The 1993 federal Family and Medical Leave Act, administered by the US Department of Labor, provides unpaid family and medical leave for some U.S. workers. On the other hand, State Temporary Disability Insurance programs are administered on a state level and offer paid family and medical leave for workers. Employer and employee generally jointly fund these programs.
Many states are working (California has been successful!) to extend their Temporary Disability Insurance programs or develop new programs to cover a wide array of family and medical needs, including adoption. According to the National Partnership for Women and Families, New Jersey’s new law falls into this category in that it will expand the state’s temporary disability insurance program to give workers up to six weeks of family leave benefits to care for a sick family member or a newborn or newly adopted child. It provides temporary disability insurance benefits at two-thirds of wage replacement up to a maximum of $524 per week in 2008, and is financed by a small employee payroll deduction.
It’s about time, right? But despite the passage of this bill through both houses of the New Jersey legislature, significant conflict about the idea of work-life policies still exists. According to an Associated Press reporter and Newsday.com, Sen. Jennifer Beck (R-Monmouth) and other opponents of the bill fear that “[t]his [bill will] impose a tax on every employer in our state and continue…to lay the groundwork for the exodus of citizens and employers.”
This comment by Senator Beck should have provided the perfect opportunity for Senate Majority Leader Stephen Sweeney, a leading proponent of the bill, to use language that bridged the business-worker gap. But instead, he followed in the divisive footsteps of Senator Beck by commenting that “[t]his bill…signif[ies] a new day for the state’s work force, in that, the needs of families will be put before the needs of business owners.”
Senator Sweeney, while meaning well and clearly a strong champion of workers who is on the right side of this issue, lost his chance to promote the pro-business benefits of work-life policies when he verbally created a divide between “families” and “business owners”—between us and them.
In many situations, employers have used public and private policy to balance competing work-life priorities. In a recent study conducted by WFD Consulting and Corporate Voices for Working Families, offering work-life policies in the workplace improves employee retention, creates more positive human capital outcomes, and establishes a more productive workforce, all of which can lead to stronger financial performance, especially for retail companies whose employees often have a direct relationship with customers. In fact, researchers reporting on a 2002 Watson Wyatt study found that “companies that provide more flexible work arrangements” could see as much as a 3.5 percent rise in shareholder value.
Work-life policies also lead to better mental health and less stress, which contribute to a reduction in employee health care costs. According to the CDC, stress at work can increase employees’ unscheduled absences, and health care expenditures (something about which we are all concerned!) are nearly 50 percent greater for U.S. workers who report high levels of stress.
We still need research to explore the narrative lens that works best when discussing work-life policy with a pro-business contingent. But even without the research, stakeholders should use common sense in their public remarks about work-life policy. New Jersey legislators just passed a bill that will help thousands of workers, but Senator Sweeney’s comments did not even open the door for a productive dialogue with the business community about legislation that affects all of us.
The facts are on his side. The battle is won, but not the war. The Senator Sweeneys of the world need to see their legislation through in a manner that will help other leaders win similar battles.
The Mobility Agenda will soon release Work-Life Policies for the Twenty-First-Century Economy, a report that explains the need for better work-life policy and provides recommendations for stakeholders.