Spread the word: You have a right to take job-protected, paid family leave in New Jersey | Opinion

Published: Oct. 16, 2022

By Debra Lancaster

Debra Lancaster, executive director of the Center for Women and Work at Rutgers University, explains how the Paid Leave Outreach Collaborative is working to increase educational outreach, community engagement, and awareness and use of paid leave in New Jersey, to help reach potential leave tak

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Working families thrive when they feel like they can do both successfully, but many are unaware that they can support their families financially, emotionally and physically with New Jersey’s paid leave programs. Others fear they’ll lose their job or suffer workplace repercussions if they pursue benefits that they’re entitled to have.

Many working adults, especially those with growing families or aging loved ones, feel pulled in different directions as priorities feel like they conflict with each other. For new parents, adjusting to the responsibilities of caring for a child and meeting workplace obligations can be daunting. Those challenges intensify when health circumstances unexpectedly arise and workers take on unplanned caregiving responsibilities.

Recognizing that caregiving demands and earning an income shouldn’t be “either/or” decisions, New Jersey in 2009 became the second state to implement a paid family leave program, Family Leave Insurance. The program provides working families economic security when they need to take time away from work to care for a newly birthed, fostered or adopted child, care for an ill family member or cope with domestic or sexual violence.

We’re on a mission to inform more workers, particularly those earning low wages who most commonly fear job loss and employer backlash, about their paid leave rights and eligibility. To do this, the New Jersey Paid Leave Outreach Collaborative — founded to increase educational outreach, community engagement, and awareness and use of paid leave in New Jersey — is taking a new strategic approach to reach potential leave takers.

As the research arm of the collaborative, the Center for Women and Work (CWW) at Rutgers University is reinforcing messaging with evidence. New Jersey Citizen Action leads outreach and advocacy efforts in partnership with the NJ Time to Care Coalition. We’re determined to inform and empower community-based organizations and local messengers to help increase awareness, access and usage of paid leave among the working families they serve.

Despite the program’s implementation and expansion over the years, few low-wage workers are aware that they pay into and are eligible for paid leave benefits. A little more than half of New Jersey workers knew about paid family leave as of 2020 – and workers earning less than $100,000 were least aware (41%). Even workers who are aware of the programs remain reluctant to ask about and use them: 58% reported job loss concerns; 52% feared loss of seniority or potential job advancement; and 51% noted eligibility uncertainty.

The COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated challenges faced by low-wage workers. Many lost jobs as business activity slowed; others found themselves in unexpected caregiving roles, as schools operated remotely, loved ones became ill or hospitalized and childcare centers closed.

New Jersey’s childcare workforce has still not rebounded to pre-pandemic levels, according to a new CWW report published in partnership with the New Jersey State Policy Lab. Parents and guardians were faced with difficult decisions that paid leave could have helped with. Not surprisingly, these burdens often fell hardest on mothers who work.

The ability to take job-protected paid family leave would have helped many eligible workers care for their children or sick loved ones, but many never heard of it or don’t understand their rights under state law.

Another recent report by the CWW found that New Jersey moms’ labor force participation fell during the pandemic. Childcare disruptions were costly for women across the income spectrum, the report found, with higher-earning women balancing childcare and homework help by working from home and many low-wage women reducing their work hours or resigning from jobs altogether to care for a loved one.

The New Jersey Department of Labor and Workforce Development is also investing in community messengers to help spread the word statewide with a $1 million grant to promote access to paid leave and related programs. Community partners are trusted, credible sources that help potential leave-takers feel comfortable getting information in familiar spaces.

This is particularly true for families who receive social services and are already oriented to state assistance programs. Learning about paid leave rights can take place anywhere; at the pediatricians’ offices during routine checkups; at daycare facilities where working parents interact; at social service agencies; hospices; treatment centers and in everyday conversations between friends and colleagues.

The collaborative aims to foster a dialogue about paid leave to advance awareness and to bolster the culture of caregiving in New Jersey. It begins with education with the hope that more families will access programs they’re entitled to. If you or your organization regularly interact with or serve working families who might be eligible for New Jersey paid family leave, consider joining us to help ensure information reaches communities most in need.

No one can create more time, but let’s do everything possible to help empower working families to spend their precious time with the people who matter most in times of greatest need.

Debra Lancaster is the executive director of the Center for Women and Work at Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey.

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published this page in News and Politics 2022-10-17 02:35:03 -0700