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Protecting Workers, Nurturing Families: Building an Inclusive Family Leave Insurance Program
Findings and Recommendations from the New Jersey Parenting Project

Authors: Suma Setty, Curtis Skinner, and Renée Wilson-Simmons
Publication Date: March 2016

Executive Summary

A high-quality paid family leave policy is a vital investment in the future of young children and their families. Paid family leave allows workers to take time off from their jobs to bond with new children or care for seriously ill family members with some financial security. Still, despite strong evidence that paid family leave is beneficial for families and has a positive or neutral impact on most businesses, the United States is the only industrialized country that does not guarantee it to workers to care for a new child or attend to other important family needs.

In the absence of federal policy, New Jersey introduced a paid leave insurance program in 2009, and is one of only three states to offer such a program. New Jersey’s Family Leave Insurance (FLI) program is funded through an employee payroll tax and provides up to six weeks of paid leave to bond with a new child or care for a seriously ill family member. Although a limited body of research has examined public awareness and perceptions of FLI, employers’ perspectives, and the impact of paid leave programs on economic and health outcomes in New Jersey, very little attention has been focused on understanding low-income workers’ experiences with the program. Paid family leave is particularly important for this population of workers, who often lack support systems and savings to withstand a significant loss of income when they need to take leave from work after the birth of a child or to care for a sick family member. However, surveys suggest that few low-income workers use FLI.

To find out why so few low-income parents file bonding claims under the FLI program and to determine how well FLI works for those who do use the program, the National Center for Children in Poverty (NCCP) at Columbia University conducted the New Jersey Parenting Project, a year-long qualitative study. Project findings are based on data gathered from focus groups and structured interviews with 42 low-income parents in metropolitan Newark, Camden, and Trenton, New Jersey.

Findings

Family Leave Insurance is valuable for low-income mothers who use it. Working parents who used FLI expressed gratitude for having time off work to bond with their newborn and income to help meet basic family expenses such as rent, utilities, food, and gas. Those who took leave (hereafter referred to as FLI+) reported returning to their former job after childbirth with much greater frequency compared to those who did not use FLI (hereafter referred to as FLI-). In addition, a substantially larger share of FLI+ mothers were working at the time they participated in the study, compared to those who did not use leave, which suggests that paid leave may help mothers maintain employment and career continuity. Also, FLI+ mothers breastfed one month longer, on average, than those who did not use the FLI program. According to one mother:

Applying for FLI is challenging. Many of the mothers who used FLI reported having significant difficulty finding accurate information about the program and getting little cooperation from their employers to help them apply. They frequently expressed confusion about FLI and other leave programs, such as New Jersey Temporary Disability Insurance for pregnancy and childbirth and unpaid leave under the federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA).

Benefit payments are frequently late. A majority of FLI+ mothers reported delays in receiving their first check—sometimes for months—compromising their financial security while on leave. Some reported not receiving their benefit until they were already back at work.

Parents who did not use FLI voiced strong support for the program once they learned about it. Those who did not participate in the program generally voiced strong interest and support for it once it was described to them, and said they would use it in the future, if needed. Referring to their experience without paid leave, parents said FLI would have been very helpful in giving them more time to bond with their child before returning to work and helping them pay essential bills. Without paid leave, many FLI- mothers reported serious financial hardship when they stopped working, and many had to rely on various forms of public assistance to get by. Compared to mothers who used family leave insurance, FLI- mothers more frequently reported distress in having to return to work earlier than they wished and having inadequate time to bond with their child.

A range of barriers discourages program take-up. Focus group discussions identified a number of barriers to taking up FLI among low-income parents who appeared eligible for the program but did not use it. FLI- parents most frequently mentioned simply not knowing about the program, confirming previous survey research. The majority of FLI- parents in the study first learned about the program when the focus group facilitator described it to them. Among parents who did know something about the program, many assumed they were not eligible for it because their employers did not tell them about FLI or encourage them to apply, even when employers knew a worker was pregnant and intended to take time off from work; indeed, not a single FLI- parent reported an employer informing the parent about the program. Several mothers reported feeling intimidated about approaching their employer about taking leave. Some blamed employer incompetence for not informing them about the FLI program, while others suspected that their employer deliberately withheld this information from them. Similarly, several parents voiced the suspicion that state government deliberately did little to promote the FLI program in order to reduce costs or workload. Like some FLI+ mothers, a number of FLI- mothers expressed confusion about different state and federal leave programs and their requirements and interactions.

Another barrier to FLI take-up appears to be the confusing application process. Two mothers reported trying to apply for FLI but giving up because they could not get adequate information to complete the necessary paperwork. The lack of job security for leave takers not covered by FMLA or NJFLA was also mentioned as a barrier, especially by fathers. Some fathers also cited the FLI program’s partial wage replacement as a disincentive to use the program, saying they needed to earn their full wage. Mothers agreed that a higher benefit would help, but still expressed interest in taking bonding leave despite the partial wage replacement.

Recommendations

These primary research findings inform the New Jersey Parenting Project’s recommendations for action by policymakers, employers, community-based organizations, and others to make New Jersey’s landmark Family Leave Insurance program work better for the state’s low-income parents. The final section of the report, Conclusions and NCCP Recommendations, is summarized below.

Improve Program Outreach

As a first step, the New Jersey Department of Labor and Workforce Development (LWD), the FLI program administrator, should convene an outreach task force comprised of representatives from state government, private businesses, community service organizations, and advocates. Among other activities, this task force would be charged with developing a multi-pronged communications campaign to enhance public understanding of FLI, with specific strategies directed toward low-income workers and men, whose take-up is particularly low. The task force would also coordinate FLI trainings for individuals and organizations that frequently serve as trusted sources of information for low-income working parents, such as health care providers and social service agencies. Other outreach and education strategies would be tailored for employers. These recommendations are informed in part by the many suggestions offered by project participants to improve FLI outreach.

Improve Program Administration

New Jersey LWD can take some simple measures to help expedite FLI application processing and ensure that leave takers receive their benefits in timely fashion. Progress is already being made in this area. In January 2016, a new law was passed and signed instructing LWD to create a one-stop website with information about the different paid and unpaid leave benefits available to New Jersey workers. In February 2016, LWD introduced an online filing option for all FLI claimants. To complement and support these important reforms, LWD should simplify the FLI application information required from the claimant and employer, improve FLI public information phone line capacity, and ensure that departmental administrative capacity (including funding) increases to match the annual growth in FLI applications.

Improve Program Benefits

Our project findings suggest that protecting jobs for leave takers would encourage use of the FLI program, particularly among low-income men. While grateful for FLI, many mothers who used the program felt that a longer period of leave would help with bonding and breastfeeding.

All of these recommended courses of action will cost money, of course. Some of the suggested administrative reforms are likely to cost relatively little, but making a significant and sustained program outreach effort will not be cheap, nor will extending leave time. As it stands now, however, New Jersey workers are funding a program that is underused. Appropriate investments should be made to make New Jersey’s laudable Family Leave Insurance program work better for the state’s low-income families.

Background and Introduction

A high-quality paid family leave policy is a vital investment in the future of young children and their families, especially children in low-income families. Paid family leave allows workers to take time off from their jobs to bond with new children or care for seriously ill family members with some financial security. Paid leave has been associated with greater job retention, greater family economic security, more working hours, higher employment rates, and higher compensation for women. i Furthermore, there is evidence linking paid leave to better maternal and child health outcomes. In contrast, early maternal return to work, common among those without paid leave, has been linked to reductions in infant immunizations, well-baby care, and breastfeeding. ii Still, despite strong evidence that paid family leave is beneficial for families and has a positive or neutral impact on most businesses, iii the United States is the only industrialized country that does not guarantee it to workers to care for a new child or attend to other important family needs. iv

In the absence of federal policy, New Jersey introduced a paid leave insurance program in 2009. v New Jersey’s Family Leave Insurance (FLI) program is funded through an employee payroll tax and provides up to six weeks of paid leave to bond with a new child or care for a seriously ill family member. Benefits are paid at two-thirds of the worker’s average wage, up to a maximum weekly benefit of $615 in 2016. New Jersey FLI is not job protected; a worker using leave is not guaranteed that he or she can return to the same job after taking leave, unless the job is protected by other statutes, such as the federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) or the New Jersey Family Leave Act (NJFLA), described on page 8 and in further detail in online Appendix A.

By statute, an employer covered under FLI is required to conspicuously display a poster detailing program information in a place accessible to all employees. The employer is also required to provide each employee with a written copy of the information on the poster at the time the employee is hired, whenever the employee notifies the employer that he or she is taking time off to bond with a newborn or newly adopted child or to care for a seriously ill family member, and on any other occasion at the employee’s request. vi About 82 percent of FLI claims in 2014 were for bonding with a new child, with women comprising 87.1 percent of all FLI claimants. vii

New Jersey’s FLI program marks a major advance for the state’s workforce. Nevertheless, program take-up is comparatively low: In 2014, fewer than one parent in eight of babies born in New Jersey that year filed an eligible FLI bonding claim. viii A statewide representative survey of New Jersey voters conducted in 2012 by the Center for Women and Work identified one likely reason for this low take-up: fewer than 40 percent of state residents knew about the program, and young adults, low-income residents, and African Americans were among the least likely to be aware of it. The survey, which assessed public awareness, opinion, and use of FLI, also showed that these groups—like others across the demographic and earnings spectrum—supported the state program by large margins once it was described to them. ix

Although a limited body of research has examined public awareness and perceptions of FLI, employers’ perspectives, and the impact of paid leave programs on economic and health outcomes in New Jersey, very little attention has been focused on understanding low-income workers’ experiences with the program. x Paid family leave is particularly important for low-income workers who often lack support systems and savings to withstand a significant loss of income when they need to take leave from work after childbirth or to care for a sick family member. Nearly 20 percent of New Jersey families (approximately 436,500) have incomes measured at 200 percent or less of the federal poverty threshold, typically the range considered to be low income. xi

To find out why so few low-income parents file bonding claims under the FLI program and to determine how well FLI works for those who do use the program, the National Center for Children in Poverty (NCCP) at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health conducted the New Jersey Parenting Project, a year-long qualitative study. Using focus groups and structured interviews with low-income working parents, project researchers set out to answer the following questions:

  1. How effective is New Jersey’s Family Leave Insurance program for low-income parents in terms of financial security and being able to bond with their new child?
  2. Why aren’t more eligible low-income workers taking advantage of the program?
  3. Are there program reforms that might improve take-up and otherwise make the state’s FLI program work better for these families?
  4. What complementary action steps can policymakers and community-based organizations take to increase program take-up?

The New Jersey Parenting Project represents the first in-depth examination of the experiences of low-income workers as they relate to New Jersey’s Family Leave Insurance Program. Five partner organizations provided important advice and assistance to NCCP on all aspects of the project: Center for Women and Work at Rutgers University (CWW), Community Service Society (CSS), New Jersey Citizen Action, Statewide Parent Advocacy Network, and Advocates for Children of New Jersey.

Karen White and her colleagues at CWW and Nancy Rankin of CSS reviewed the project research design and data collection instruments, commented on the preliminary findings, reviewed draft project publications, and helped disseminate findings to stakeholders. CWW and CSS are policy research centers with extensive experience analyzing public policy as it affects low-income families. New Jersey Citizen Action, Statewide Parent Advocacy Network, and Advocates for Children of New Jersey, state advocacy organizations with strong track records in advancing public policy to improve outcomes for children and families, advised NCCP on project research design and data collection instruments, shared their expertise and networks to assist in participant recruiting, commented on the preliminary findings, and helped disseminate findings to stakeholders.

Sample and Methodology

A total of 42 low-income mothers and fathers from metropolitan Newark, Camden, and Trenton, New Jersey, meeting the criteria to be eligible for the state FLI program attended focus groups or participated in in-depth interviews between August and November 2015. Fifteen mothers in the study took advantage of FLI (FLI+), while 23 mothers did not (FLI-). The four fathers included in the study did not take up FLI. Eight focus groups and six in-depth interviews were conducted during this time period, with the focus groups organized to be homogeneous by participant gender and whether or not the participant took advantage of FLI. Two focus groups and six interviews were conducted with FLI+ mothers while five focus groups were convened with FLI- participants. Additional information was gathered from participants’ responses to the study screening instrument and the registration form completed at the focus group sites. A majority of study participants were African American (79 percent) and most (57 percent) lived in the greater Newark area. All participants met the following criteria: (1) welcomed a child into their family in the past two years (adoption or birth), (2) were working up until shortly before the arrival of their child, and (3) earned 250 percent or less of the federal poverty guideline.

The research team collected participant demographic data from screening questions asked to determine study eligibility. Detailed information about family composition and leave-taking was gathered from registration forms when participants arrived for focus groups or interviews. The team analyzed descriptive data from screening and registration surveys for FLI- and FLI+ groups separately. (See online Appendix B for detailed sample characteristics.)

The research team analyzed transcripts from focus groups and interviews using the Framework Analysis methodology. xii Transcripts were coded and organized by major themes, primarily using Atlas.ti 7 qualitative data analysis software with a jointly developed codebook. The research team then analyzed how emergent themes related to the project research questions. (See online Appendix C for a more detailed discussion of project methodology.)

Findings: Mothers who Used Family Leave Insurance

FLI gave mothers essential time to bond with their child and the money to help meet basic family needs

Mothers in New Jersey who used FLI expressed gratitude to have time off from work to bond with their newborn and income to help meet basic family expenses. These mothers mentioned using FLI monetary benefits to pay the rent and defray other essential expenses, such as food, diapers, and transportation to doctors’ offices. All respondents said they would apply for FLI again should they have another child. Although only one respondent reported that FLI helped her with breastfeeding, mothers who used FLI breastfed for one month longer on average than women who did not use FLI. Many respondents mentioned they would inform their friends and family members about the program should they plan to welcome a new child.

While grateful for FLI monetary benefits, it was clear that mothers had to find other ways to make up the loss of their full income. Many participants mentioned saving money, cutting down on purchases, strategically utilizing their vacation days and leave benefits under other programs (such as disability leave for pregnancy and childbirth provided by state Temporary Disability Insurance), and counting on public b`enefit programs to minimize the potential for financial hardship during their leaves from work.

FLI program administration needs improvement

While supportive of the Family Leave Insurance program, many respondents reported having difficulty completing and filing their FLI applications, and a number of mothers reported substantial delays in receiving their initial benefit. In addition, many respondents expressed confusion about how FLI interacted with, and differed from, other federal and state leave programs for new mothers.

Applying for FLI is complicated and confusing

Nearly all focus groups and interviews with mothers who received FLI brought up the difficulty of understanding and navigating the application process. Even those who did not experience payment delays felt that applications for FLI were made more difficult by a lack of information/guidance about how to complete the submission process and confusion about benefits and entitlements on the part of claimants as well as employers. In addition, respondents described the application process as cumbersome because they had to make sure their employer completed the employer section of the application. Some mothers who took pregnancy disability under the state’s Temporary Disability Insurance (TDI) program also reported delays from their health care providers in completing the provider part of the TDI application.

A number of respondents expressed the view that their employers didn’t understand the process well themselves, and some reported educating their employers about the program. Several respondents expressed frustration with their employers for failing to fill out the employer portion of the application in a timely fashion.

Other respondents appeared to distrust the good faith effort of employers to help workers learn about and use FLI.

Different leave programs create additional confusion

Across the board, respondents expressed frustration simply in trying to understand what leave programs are available to them as working parents, how they differ, and how to access them. This is not surprising when one considers the range of leave programs available to new mothers and the different benefits – and rules – that apply:

In principle, these programs can work in harmony to provide a range of supports for working parents. When eligible for FMLA or NJFLA and opting for FLI and/or childbirth-related TDI, participants are required to take any TDI immediately before using FLI, while both programs must be taken concurrently with FMLA or NJFLA (see online Appendix A for more details). However, the different leave programs were sometimes discussed interchangeably, and respondents’ comments suggested widespread confusion among both new mothers and their employers about the purpose and coverage of each kind of leave:

Attempting to understand the patchwork of leave programs that respondents navigated led not only to confusion, but also incorrect conclusions about the program benefits:

Delays in FLI payments threaten financial security

Nine out of the 15 mothers in the sample who received FLI alluded to or reported financial hardship due to delays in receiving their FLI payments. Typically, women reported delays of more than three weeks between application and receipt of payments. Reasons for the delay were often unclear to recipients themselves, but nearly all mentioned the confusing and fragmented application processes. Due to the delays in payment receipt, some women returned to work earlier than anticipated, relied on family or community support, or were simply unable to pay bills or rent.

Recommendations for Improving FLI from Mothers Who Have Used It

When asked for recommendations on how to improve the FLI program, mothers who used it commented mostly on increasing the length of leave time and improving the application process. Recommendations on leave length ranged from an additional month (10 weeks of leave) to a year after birth. Women who had used FLI also hoped to see changes to how applications are processed. Some suggestions included adding an option to file FLI claims online to ease the paperwork burden and providing a clear explanation of the benefit period and benefit amount. Surprisingly, job security was not mentioned as a recommendation in FLI+ groups, although job security was considered an important component of FMLA when respondents discussed this program.

Increase the length of leave

Mothers receiving FLI were grateful for the opportunity to stay at home with their newborn and not be forced by financial pressure to return to work earlier. Many, however, mentioned they wished the length of leave conferred by the program was longer, sometimes mentioning breastfeeding as a major reason for wanting a longer leave time. While all agreed that an increase in the monetary benefit would also be beneficial, many mentioned that they would not trade more money for less time at home with their newborns. Some even said that they would take less money for more time to bond with their child.

Simplify the application process and make program information more accessible

Some participants mentioned that information about FLI should be made more clear and understandable.

Improve program administration

Several participants suggested implementing an option to file for FLI online. (Since the focus groups were convened, New Jersey has introduced an online filing option.)

Findings: Parents who Did Not Use Family Leave Insurance

Parents expressed strong interest in and support for Family Leave Insurance once it was described to them

All participants in the study who did not use FLI—women and men—expressed interest in learning more about the program, whether they were eligible, and how to apply. Once they had more information, many said they would take advantage of the program if it were explained to them properly and if their employer supported them.

New mothers without paid leave frequently struggled financially

Many women, including those who strategically saved resources or planned their leave time, struggled to make ends meet when they took leave for pregnancy and childbirth. Compared to mothers who used FLI, a much smaller proportion of mothers who did not use leave reported returning to their former job, and a substantially higher share were not working at the time they participated in this study.

To prepare for living without earnings or paid leave, many respondents worked late into their pregnancies, sometimes while engaged in physically challenging or hazardous duties and with considerable physical discomfort. Some sought to hide their pregnancies so they could keep working. Women agonized about leaving their jobs without the security of job protection. Some FLI- respondents did use TDI leave for pregnancy and childbirth, but still sought to work as long as they could, anticipating financial hardship on leave. Like FLI, TDI pays a benefit set at two-thirds of the worker’s weekly wage and does not protect jobs.

Others were forced to stop working earlier despite the financial hardship:

Respondents used a variety of methods to make ends meet while they were out of work and unaware of FLI as a potential resource, from public assistance to community programs to family support. Unemployment insurance and nutritional assistance from WIC (the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children) were mentioned most frequently. Other programs mentioned were Supplemental Security Income, food stamps, and cash assistance, presumably through the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families Program, sometimes referred to as “welfare” or “TIP” (TANF Initiative for Parents in New Jersey).

Some working women who had quit or lost their jobs during their pregnancies touched upon the difficulty in retaining and obtaining work as a pregnant woman. These women reported having difficulty finding jobs before and after childbirth. This sometimes resulted in a cycle of unemployment. Like the mothers in the study who used FLI, respondents who did not benefit from paid leave generally showed a strong commitment to participating in the labor force.

New mothers without paid leave often felt compelled to return to work too early for financial reasons

Compared to mothers who used FLI, mothers who did not take paid leave more frequently reported distress in having to return to work earlier than they wished and having inadequate time to bond with their new child, even though several FLI+ mothers also expressed these sentiments. Mothers felt that more time off work would allow them to bond with their babies and recover from childbirth, mentally and physically. A number of respondents reported feeling deep conflict between wanting to spend more time with the new child and needing to return to work for financial reasons. Several voiced anguish about having to leave their child in child care at a very young age. Some mothers ended up taking significant amounts of unpaid (or informally paid) time off, six months or longer, despite the financial hardship.

Not enough time to bond with their child:

Physically or emotionally not ready to return:

In contrast, a few mothers were eager to get back to work. Notably, these mothers had significant support from the child’s father or other family members.

Barriers to taking up Family Leave Insurance

Lack of awareness

Since study participants were screened for FLI eligibility, based on their responses, all women in the FLI- groups were eligible for FLI. xiii Yet, the majority of women in the FLI- groups learned about Family Leave Insurance for the first time when it was described by facilitators during focus group sessions. Some women reported having seen some information about FLI in the form of posters at hospitals or their workplace, but not understanding the written information. Among the four men, only one respondent knew that men could also apply for FLI, and this respondent learned from his wife, who took up FLI. Like some mothers who used FLI, many respondents expressed confusion about their eligibility for FLI, FMLA, NJFLA, and TDI for pregnancy and childbirth.

Several respondents voiced suspicion that state government deliberately withheld information about FLI from the public to reduce costs or workload.

Lack of employer support

Of mothers who knew about FLI and did not take it up, many of them didn’t think they were eligible because they did not get adequate information or support for using the program from their employer. Some expressed trepidation about approaching their employer, suggesting they did not feel supported enough to ask about FLI eligibility or benefits.

Some respondents blamed employer incompetence for not informing them about the FLI program. Others suspected that employers deliberately withheld program information from them. No respondents reported receiving information about FLI from their employer.

Confusing application process

Two women specifically cited a difficult application process as preventing them from taking up FLI. Two other respondent mothers reported intending to apply for FLI, but ending up with paperwork to apply for an extension of pregnancy disability for medical reasons, which did not apply in their cases.

Job security concerns

One woman specifically said she didn’t apply for FLI because her job would not be secure if she took leave using just FLI, and she was not yet covered under FMLA, which grants job protection.

Barriers to FLI take-up among men: Lack of job security, inadequate wage replacement, and gendered expectations

Among fathers, lack of job security emerged as the principal barrier to using FLI.

Fathers also mentioned wage replacement as important to them when considering taking leave from their job after the birth of a child.

Fathers felt obligated to return to work quickly—if they left work at all—to make money for their families. They expressed the view that as men, they felt responsible for providing for their families. Discussion about gender roles, earning obligations, and leave-taking overlapped with concerns about job security and adequate wage replacement under the FLI program.

Promoting FLI and Encouraging Take-Up: Respondent Recommendations

Respondents who used and who did not use Family Leave Insurance had numerous suggestions for getting the word out about the program. The most frequent recommendations involved disseminating information through community programs that work with families and young children, educating health care providers, promoting the program through advertisements, and educating employers so that they inform employees. Other suggestions included disseminating the information through public programs such as WIC, Family Success Centers, home visitation programs, and public assistance offices. xiv When prompted, respondents warmed to the idea of promoting FLI on social media, with recommendations to create a Facebook page, send out tweets, and inform the public via Instagram. Others found smartphone apps, text messaging services like Text4Baby, and online parenting groups to be good sources of information. In one focus group, all six participants reported using baby apps on their smartphones.

Health Care Workers

Many respondents advocated distributing information to doctors and hospital social workers, identifying them as trusted sources of information about being a new mom. One mother who used FLI felt that the timing of providing leave information is important, expressing the view that workers may know something about the program, but the information will only “take” when the worker is about to become a parent.

Employers

Respondents also had suggestions about how employers could do more to educate their employees about FLI, such as including FLI information in their employee manuals and handbooks, discussing it with pregnant workers, and reminding employees about the program during annual benefits enrollment. In addition, some suggested having a state government representative visit workplaces to inform employees about the program.

Community-based Organizations and Public Social Services Agencies

A number of respondents worked at community-based agencies and identified their own and similar organizations as important points of contact and sources of information for low-income workers. One mother worked at a WIC office, another did home visitations for pregnant women, and a third volunteered with a community-based organization. Respondents noted that many CBOs, government social service agencies, and similar organizations have a mission to serve low-income workers and families, and staff could readily disseminate information about FLI when constituents come to apply for, or attend, other public or community programs.

Women also reported trusting information from their children’s schools (including day care centers and Head Start centers), word of mouth (friends and family), online mothers’ support groups, personal online research (“Google”), unions, Family Success Centers, and other community institutions (including religious congregations like churches or mosques), providing additional insight into effective points of contact with mothers of young children.

Conclusions and NCCP Recommendations

Caring for a new life, attempting to maximize tight resources, and planning for the future contribute to multiple stressors already present in the lives of low-income families. Our research shows that New Jersey’s Family Leave Insurance program has been a boon to the low-income, working mothers who have used it, allowing them to leave their jobs to bond with and care for their newborns with some financial security. Some of those who were able to take advantage of the program, however, were frustrated by the complicated and confusing application process, delays receiving benefit payments, and unclear and inaccessible information about how the FLI program works and how it interacts with other leave programs.

Among study participants who met the eligibility requirements for FLI but did not use the program, many did not know about FLI or did not feel sufficiently supported by their employer to apply for it. Once they learned about the program, mothers who did not use FLI expressed a strong desire to take advantage of the program should they have another baby. But fathers reported that the lack of job protection under FLI might prevent them from taking leave.

Respondent mothers who did not use FLI often reported working long into their pregnancies despite physical discomfort and/or workplace hazards and returning to work after childbirth earlier than they wanted in order to make up for lost income. Respondent fathers who did not use FLI took very little, if any, unpaid time off from work following the birth of their children, feeling that they had to provide for their families. Many parents relied on public assistance programs such as food stamps, WIC, and unemployment insurance to make ends meet after welcoming a child into their family.

As one of only three states in the nation with a paid family leave program, New Jersey is a leader in advancing public policy to support working families. Our research uncovered a range of ways the FLI program might be made more effective and inclusive of low-income workers. Employees need to feel sufficiently supported by their employers to not only learn about the FLI but to apply for and use the program. At the same time, employers must be made aware of the program so that they are in compliance with the law and can disseminate accurate and accessible information to their employees. Both employees and employers need clear and understandable information about FLI and various other leave programs offered by the state.

Working with diverse stakeholders, New Jersey policymakers and the Department of Labor and Workforce Development (LWD) can strengthen FLI program outreach, improve program administration, and enhance leave benefits to make FLI work better for the state’s low-income families. Building collaborative relationships among state government, private employers, community-based organizations, and advocates for low-income families will strengthen the likelihood that these reforms succeed.

New Jersey’s Recent Efforts

Since the data gathering for this study was completed, New Jersey has made significant and welcome improvements to the state’s family leave program:

  1. To make information about FLI more accessible, state lawmakers passed a law in January 2016 requiring that LWD create a one-stop public website containing information about paid and unpaid leave benefits available to workers in New Jersey. The law is set to take effect by the summer of 2016.xv
  2. LWD now provides an online filing option for both TDI and FLI claimants with the capacity to track application status. Employer and health care provider portals now permit them to provide required documentation and information online, rather than by mail or fax. FLI claimants can begin an application up to 14 days in advance of planned leave, although the state allows submission only after the first day of leave is taken. Until February 2016, New Jersey’s paid family leave program was the only one among the three states with similar programs that did not provide an online application for FLI or TDI.xvi fromnsors: the Senate. use bill and lave programs, the fund ew child,or their own serious health condition, caehad family suppoCalifornia has provided an online option since 2011, and Rhode Island has had an online application since its implementation in 2014.

New research and evaluation will be needed to determine whether these improvements encourage greater use of the FLI program and make program administration more efficient.

Invest in Program Outreach

New Jersey’s Family Leave Insurance law contains no requirement or specific funding for public outreach or education activities, although legislation allows the funds created by worker contributions to be used for evaluation purposes.xvii Shortly after FLI implementation, LWD conducted targeted outreach to employers, advocacy organizations, and others and provided resources on their website with downloadable applications and informational brochures in both Spanish and English.xviii These outreach efforts on behalf of the state, however, appear to have tapered off in the years following implementation. It is no surprise, therefore, that findings from this study, along with several others, illustrate a deep disconnect between low-wage workers and awareness about FLI. Lack of awareness of such programs may contribute to workers’ lack of trust in employers and government to provide relevant information or act in their favor. Demonstrated efforts on the part of the state to educate employers and the public may increase trust in governmental capacity and programs and help raise employer awareness of, and support for, paid family leave. In addition, an outreach campaign would be an appropriate addition to the state’s efforts to inform workers of its new online application process and the impending availability of a public website.

Partnerships are Important to Success

New Jersey can take note of California’s outreach efforts — where lack of awareness, mistrust, and confusion also presented barriers to take-up of paid family leave — as a guide for expanding outreach. California recently allocated funding for specific outreach activities, outlining a timeline for implementation, and requiring documentation on how target populations are determined and how effectiveness of outreach will be measured.xix In order to develop a coordinated, evidence-based public education campaign, funding must be made available so that government administrators can work with a wide range of stakeholders.

LWD should utilize FLI funds to create an outreach task force responsible for educating the public on FLI and other leave programs available to workers. Such a task force would include representatives of key stakeholders—including community organizations, health providers, employer groups, public social service agencies, and advocacy coalitions—and coordinate outreach efforts among their peer organizations and constituencies. For example, the task force could work with New Jersey Time to Care Coalition, a coalition with over 80 member organizations comprised of community service providers, unions, research institutions, and advocacy organizations committed to policies that support family-friendly workplace policies. Existing agencies and workgroups within state government, such as the Community Outreach arm of the Office of Public Affairs in New Jersey’s Department of Human Services, could assist the task force with capacity building, community outreach, and implementation of reforms.

With increased funding and intra-governmental and multi-sector collaboration, LWD’s outreach task force should do the following:

Community-based organizations and communications researchers can support outreach and education efforts by serving as consultants and partners to LWD’s outreach task force. In particular, with adequate funding, they can initiate the following activities to encourage greater program use:

Improve Program Administration

To expedite processing FLI applications and ensure that leave-takers receive their benefits in a timely fashion, NCCP recommends that the Department of Labor and Workforce Development do the following:

Findings from this study, while demonstrating the merits of New Jersey’s FLI program, also suggest several policy-level reforms to consider. Policymakers should consider the following reforms to strengthen the Family Leave Insurance program for low-income parents:

Enhance Program Benefits

These recommendations are primarily informed by the first-hand experiences of low-income working parents collected by the New Jersey Parenting Project. Lessons learned from implementing California’s Paid Family Leave program and the broader research literature on the take-up of public benefit programs among low-income populations also informed the recommendations.xxx Like most Americans, respondents in this study showed strong attachment to the labor force and expressed a desire to be independent and achieve a healthy work-life balance. Program administrators, policymakers, and community advocates in New Jersey and other states can use these findings to develop, implement, and optimize paid family leave programs so they meet the needs of these hard-working parents and their families.