The 2008 New Jersey Paid Family Leave Bill: Bringing Employers and Employees…Together?

Tuesday, April 08, 2008 | Margy's Blog & Updates

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.

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Work Life Policies Move Forward

Sunday, March 09, 2008 | Margy's Blog & Updates

The movement to guarantee that all workers have paid time off for work life balance is gaining momentum.

Washington DC just passed the second local law in the nation (despite the limitations of the provision, this is progress) and New Jersey seems poised to pass a law offering paid family and medical leave.

And finally, check out this innovative use of the web to create on “online rally” for paid sick days.

Spend your lunch break today speaking out for paid sick days for all working people.

Join us virtually at the U.S. Capitol for the first-ever Online Rally for Healthy Families — a special online event hosted by the National Partnership and the Healthy Families Act coalition.

Bring your friends and co-workers along....

You can join the rally by visiting EveryoneGetsSick.org and then share your story, upload a photo, take action, and more.

Color me green – I love this creative use of the available technology.

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DC to Workers: Wait a Year Before Getting Sick

Wednesday, March 05, 2008 | Margy's Blog & Updates

DC is the second city in the nation to have a new labor standard ensuring paid sick days for workers. When we started our research on New Ideas for Better Jobs, this kind of progress was hard to imagine.

But, the news from the DC Employment Justice Center suggests we have some work to do now that City Council voted against residents yesterday by seriously limiting the reach of the new labor standard and leaving out many workers, rather than ensuring all workers can take time off when they are sick.

We would surely benefit from a little more research on the best way to have this conversation in order to sustain the political space and public will necessary for a standard that works for the entire community.

We have good evidence in hand of the economic reasons for better work-life policy.Yet too many people seem to believe that a guarantee of a limited number of paid sick days would hurt the local economy.

From the Employment and Justice Center:

D.C. Council Includes One-Year Waiting Period, Other Harsh Amendments before Passing the Accrued Sick and Safe Leave Act

Washington, DC- Today, the D.C. Council voted unanimously to pass the Accrued Sick and Safe Leave Act of 2007, an historic piece of legislation that is poised to make D.C. the second city in the nation to provide all of its workers with a limited amount of paid sick time, and the first to protect workers who need time off to address a domestic violence, sexual assault, or stalking situation. Unfortunately, after more than two hours of arguments and a slew of amendments, the bill that ultimately passed the Council today was a shadow of the original legislation. After including an amendment requiring that employees complete a full 12 months of employment before accessing paid sick and safe time, and after adding exemptions for health care workers and for restaurant wait staff, the bill that the Council supported today was, while laudable, dramatically weaker than what they voted 11-2 to pass just one month ago.

There are estimated to be over 200,000 workers in DC who do not get paid sick time, with high concentrations in low-wage food service, retail, and construction. These include part-time workers and workers in seasonal positions that, under the current bill, may never meet the one-year full-time minimum to access paid sick and safe time.

Members of the Council claimed that the amendment, which redefined "employees" according to the definition in the Family Medical Leave Act, was necessary in order to bring clarity to the bill. "In reality, the amendment was an effort to deeply weaken the bill, because using the FMLA definition in this legislation means that workers and their family members will have to go a full year without anyone being sick or needing protection from domestic violence situations," stated Karen Minatelli, Deputy Director of the DC Employment Justice Center. "It's completely unrealistic." Despite the ultimate 7-6 vote to pass this amendment, advocates thank Councilmembers Barry, Bowser, Graham, Mendelson, Schwartz, and Wells for standing up for workers and the heart of the bill, by voting against the one-year delay.

Councilmembers Graham, Mendelson, and Schwartz also opposed exemptions for wait staff and health care workers. "Exemptions for health care workers and wait staff are contrary to one of the bill's purposes," added Minatelli. "If we are trying to address public health concerns about the spread of illness, then it makes no sense to exempt workers in the health field or in jobs with such public contact."

Unions, workers and advocates celebrate the passage of this important legislation and the support from Councilmembers who opposed the harsh amendments, but look forward to a time when the District will truly provide sick and safe leave for all D.C. workers.

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Governor Strickland of Ohio: Doing His Part for the Economy

Tuesday, February 05, 2008 | Margy's Blog & Updates

Back when I was working on state-level policy in Ohio, and Ted Strickland was a newish member of Congress, he spoke to a group of Cincinnati progressives (no, it’s really not an oxymoron) interested in policy issues that I helped to found. I wouldn’t have said he was “stimulating” exactly – but definitely smart and thoughtful about social issues. (Plus, he was one of the speakers who went out with us after the event – our favorite kind of presenter.)

Now that he’s governor, Strickland has been taking some innovative steps to strengthen the economy.

For example, he’s implementing a policy idea that surfaced in our national scan, New Ideas and Strategies for Better Jobs: creating democratic workplaces with state level policy. These policies address the system of leadership and decision-making within workplaces, particularly in employment sectors that have traditionally been excluded from activities such as collectively negotiating better working conditions.

Last summer, Governor Strickland gave home health care workers the opportunity to organize and negotiate over work conditions. Last week, he extended this option to about 8,000 home-based child care workers.

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Universal Health Care Moves Forward in San Francisco

Saturday, January 12, 2008 | Margy's Blog & Updates

The New York Times reports that San Francisco won a round in the fight with local employers over how to pay for universal health care.

A federal panel of judges granted San Francisco the right on Wednesday to put in place a key part of its universal health care program as legal arguments about the first-in-the-nation plan continue.

The unanimous decision, from a three-judge panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, allows the city to require businesses with more than 20 employees to pay a fee to help cover employees’ health care costs, something city officials say will help about 20,000 people without insurance.

The law, which passed the city’s Board of Supervisors in 2006, had been successfully challenged by a local restaurant trade group, which argued that it would violate a 1974 federal statute that prohibits conflicting local, state and federal benefit plans. That opinion was seconded in late December by Judge Jeffrey S. White of Federal District Court, who suspended the law, which was due to take effect on Jan. 1.

But on Wednesday, Judge William A. Fletcher of the circuit court said that the city had a “strong likelihood” to prevail in the case, and granted a temporary stay of the district court order while the full appeal is heard.

Joined by Judges Alfred T. Goodwin and Stephen Reinhardt, Judge Fletcher wrote that “the balance of hardships tips sharply in favor of the city,” adding “that the public interest would be served by a stay.”

Dennis Herrera, the San Francisco city attorney, said the ruling would greatly strengthen the health plan, which has already signed up nearly 8,000 residents.

Finally - Standing Up for Health Care, For Real

Thursday, November 15, 2007 | Margy's Blog & Updates

It’s about time.

Finally, a few Senators appear willing to engage in the fight over health care in a substantive way – not just in some (misguided) effort to establish a campaign issue.

Eight Democratic senators say they cannot support any compromise that limits their states’ ability to cover parents along with children.

Democratic leaders had been considering such a compromise. But in their effort to mollify Republicans, the Democrats have begun to alienate some members of their own party on this and other issues.

The eight senators told Democratic leaders this week that they could not support any bill if their states lost money for the coverage of parents.

A compromise bill must “protect state flexibility to cover parents,” the senators said in a letter to Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California and the House majority leader, Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland. “Our states have taken the lead to provide health care to this specific population, and we do not want to inhibit their ability to continue providing this important coverage.”

The letter is signed by senators from five states that together cover more than 250,000 parents. The senators are Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, Frank R. Lautenberg and Robert Menendez of New Jersey, Jeff Bingaman of New Mexico, Jack Reed and Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island, and Russ Feingold and Herb Kohl of Wisconsin….

…. in their letter, the Democratic senators warned Congressional leaders against “further compromise,” saying it would erode their support for the bill.

Mere passage of legislation is not winning. Better to communicate what you stand for than just pass a bill that communicates something altogether different. Even if it means the bill doesn’t become law.

After all, will anyone believe you when you say you want health care for all but support a bill that moves in another direction?

If you support a bill that provides health care for the “poor kids”, where do you go next?

You will have a hard time convincing anyone that you REALLY want health care for everyone when you were willing to cut eligibility for families who cannot afford health care and whose employers are not providing it. Not only willing to cut, but actively proclaimed your preference for “poor children first”, while denying coverage to immigrants and adults in the same bill.

These senators haven’t said quite everything that’d be nice to hear on this topic – but this is a step in the right direction, finally.