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Thurman Hart

What’s Better than FMLA? New Jersey passes Paid Family Leave

When New Jersey began debating paid family leave, I didn't have to look far to find reasons for backing it. I've watched my own family struggle to deal with the demands of work and family too often to believe that such a thing isn't necessary. With my aging mother living in public housing in a rural town in Texas and my father-in-law in an Alzheimer's care unit in North Carolina, I could easily receive a phone call at any moment telling me to pitch every plan I have for the next three weeks and take a cross-country trip to deal with a relative's health issue. Balance that against a set of eighteen-month old twins, and my wife and I are very suddenly the poster-parents for the Sandwich Generation - caught between the very real demands of our becoming-dependent parents and our still-dependent children. This is reality - this is family in America in the twenty-first century.

But it isn't just potential problems. When my wife and I married, her mother suffered from degenerative early-onset dementia and required total nursing care. As her demise approached, there was a series of medical decisions about feeding tubes and medications and what was best for my mother-in-law. More often than not, these discussions were had by my wife at her desk at work with only the privacy of a cubicle offered as she discussed the manner in which her mother would die. When the merciful end of her suffering came, my mother-in-law passed away with no family at her bedside. If she was aware of anything; then it was only the fact of dying alone and being unable to even ask for a hand to hold.

As compelling as an argument that is, even more so is the story of our sons' birth. After trying for years to conceive, we were finally able to do so. However, on Memorial Day of 2006, we made a trip to the emergency room of our local hospital to find out that one of the triplets' hearts had stopped beating and that placed the other two at very high risk. My wife began twelve weeks of complete bedrest - slowly eating through her vacation time, her sick days, and her state disability payments. When she was put into the hospital, the remaining twins were still twelve weeks away from their due date. The miracle of modern medicine was able to hold off their birth for two weeks, but they came into the world ten weeks early weighing two pounds, twelve ounces and three pounds, five ounces.

We were fortunate. The only thing wrong with our boys was their size. They gained weight like champs and we brought the first one home (on a heart monitor) before the original due date. The other followed a few days later. But now we had two tiny human beings totally dependent on our care who had to be fed every three hours and who, periodically, suffered sleep apnea deep enough to stop their hearts (hence, heart monitors). You can't put medically fragile children like that in daycare. Because my wife had been out of work so long prior to their births, her disability ran out before they came home - so we used her federal FMLA benefits.

I'm glad she had those benefits. As an adjunct, I only get paid when I'm in the classroom and I was working at three universities in two states at that time. Unpaid family leave let my wife spend an extra month at home with our boys. If she hadn't had those benefits, she would have had to go to work while her newborn twins were still in the hospital and I would have had to quit all three of my adjunct jobs and leave six classes worth of university students floundering. Unpaid family leave spared not only my family, but somewhere in the neighborhood of three hundred other families of my students a major disruption caused by the early birth of my twins.

As it was, the semester ended and I took over the care of my twin sons. My wife went back to work, but not because she had run out of FMLA benefits, but because we needed the money to address the bills that were slowly piling up. Even a few more weeks of paid leave would have helped ease my family through a very stressful time. From a financial standpoint, even eighteen months out, we are still struggling to make up for those weeks of unpaid leave. Bills, as everyone knows, don't stop because you aren't getting paid.

Yet the Chamber of Commerce fought paid family leave as being anti-business. The arguments were laughable. With my life experience, I could - and did - refute those talking points one by one. Every bad thing they claimed paid family leave would bring was already happening - but with the additional problem of launching financial solvent families into a series of financial crises. Despite stiff opposition, New Jersey's progressive community rallied behind paid family leave and Governor Corzine will sign it into law today. I applaud him for doing so.

New Jerseyans will now be eligible to take up to six weeks of paid family leave to care for a newborn or adopted child or a sick parent, spouse, or child. Workers will receive two-thirds of their regular pay up to a maximum of $524 a week. Family leave will be paid for by a fund that workers will contribute an estimated $33 a year towards. Benefits will begin being paid after July 1, 2009 to allow the fund time to build sufficient resources.

What business leaders have to learn is that helping their employees deal with life isn't anti-business. California has shown that absenteeism and job abandonment decline when people can take time off of work to help their families. That should be a no-brainer. A worker who is distracted by thoughts of their sick child or ailing parent is not a productive worker. FMLA is a boon to families who can afford to take it, but there are very few families who can totally forgo a paycheck for an extended period. This is life in America in the twenty-first century. Fortunately, public policy in New Jersey is catching up.

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Posted at 11:57 AM, May 02, 2008 in Employment
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