(TRENTON) – New Jersey Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto on Tuesday unveiled sweeping plans to improve New Jersey’s paid family leave program by expanding leave times, providing higher compensation to those taking leave, covering more family members, improving job protections and boosting awareness of the benefit.

“This is an invaluable law, but it’s underused and needs improvement,” said Prieto (D-Hudson / Bergen). “New Jersey’s hard-working men and women deserve a program that can truly help them in their time of need, whether it’s caring for a family member or welcoming a new family member. The 2009 law was a great first step that we all take pride in, but we also know it wasn’t quite enough. We need to do better – and this bill represents that big step forward.”

More than 155,000 people used New Jersey’s paid family leave to take care of a new child or a sick relative in the law’s first five years, but too few know the benefits exist or how to sign-up, according to a study by the Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health.

The law gives people six weeks off while collecting two-thirds of their pay but capped at an amount set annually. The program is funded through employee payroll deductions of about 50 cents a week until they reach the yearly maximum contribution of $26.08. The Speaker’s bill does not call for changing that funding mechanism or deduction.

“We need to build upon the existing law to make it better and more relevant to today’s working families,” Prieto said. “People can’t take advantage of this program if they don’t know about it. They also can’t take advantage of it if it doesn’t help them. We’re going to change that and make this program something usable for anyone who needs to do so.”

“The NJ Family Leave Insurance Program is a great program, but it doesn’t always meet the needs of today’s New Jersey families,” said Dena Mottola Jaborska, Associate Director of New Jersey Citizen Action. “The Speaker’s bill makes important changes that will ensure more New Jerseyans can afford to use the program without fear of losing their job. With these important changes, New Jersey can continue to lead the way on workplace policies that allow us to be there for family members when they need us most.”

“AARP works to support New Jersey’s 1.1 million family caregivers who help make it possible for older New Jerseyans and other loved ones to live independently at home – where they want to be,” said Stephanie Hunsinger, AARP NJ State Director. “The majority of family caregivers work and many need New Jersey’s family leave insurance program in order to provide the critical support needed to help their loved ones age in place. We are proud that New Jersey has been a leader in this policy area and look forward to working with Speaker Prieto, the entire Legislature and stakeholders to improve the program so it is more accessible to all.”

“Working families should not have to choose between spending some time at home or not being able to spend time at home because of having to go back to work,” said Charlie Wowkanech, President, New Jersey State AFL-CIO. “The New Jersey State AFL-CIO is a proud advocate for pro-family policies and we will work hard in support of this effort to expand on the paid family leave program’s success.”

“Strengthening the New Jersey Family Leave Insurance Program will enable small business owners to take even better care of their employees,” said Jerome Montes, business representative of the New Jersey Main Street Alliance. “We’re also very happy that the proposed legislation allows the self-employed to opt in to the program. An increasing number of small business owners are self-employed in the gig economy, and allowing these owners to opt in means extending benefits to everyone on Main Street.

“Paid family leave is good for families, good for businesses and good for the economy,” said Jon Whiten, Vice President of New Jersey Policy Perspective. “But just having paid leave is not enough: we need to ensure that our policy helps as many working families as possible – by improving wage replacements, expanding job protections and expanding the eligibility for family members who currently can’t use the program.”

Features of the bill (A4927) include:

INCREASING LEAVE TIMES AND FLEXIBILITY

* Increasing the maximum number of weeks of family temporary disability leave benefits for a period of family temporary disability leave from 6 to 12 weeks.

* Providing that family temporary disability leave benefits for bonding with a newborn or an adopted child may be taken on an intermittent basis.

* Increasing intermittent leave from 42 days to 84 days, which can help parents and caretakers stay at work on a part-time basis while still caring for a sick loved one or bonding with a newborn.

GREATER BENEFITS THAT WILL ALLOW MORE FAMILIES TO TAKE ADVANTAGE OF THE PROGRAM

* The bill would expand the amount that covered individuals would collect in benefits, allowing for more people to take advantage of the program in our high-cost state, with a focus on helping lower-income families in particular.

* The weekly cap for benefits under the program would rise from the current $633 to up to $932 per week, depending on the claimant’s income.

INCREASING AVAILABILITY

* Expanding the family members that individuals covered under the law may receive paid benefits to include siblings, grandparents, grandchildren and parents-in-law. Currently, family leave benefits are only available to care for children, spouses, domestic partners, civil union partners or parents of covered individuals.

* Allowing for leave to be taken to care for a family member who has been a victim of an incident of domestic violence or a sexually violent offense.

* Extending benefits to parents that have a child through the use of a surrogate.

* Establishing a process for self-employed individual to contribute to pay into the program and quality for paid family leave benefits.

JOB PROTECTIONS AND REMEDIES

* Strengthening protections for program participants by specifying that an employer may not discharge, harass, threaten, discriminate or retaliate against an employee with respect to the compensation, terms, conditions, or privileges of employment on the basis that the employee took or requested leave to which the employee was entitled.

* Allowing an employee or former employee to institute a civil action in the Superior Court in the case of a violation of the bill’s anti-discrimination and anti-retaliation provisions.

INCREASING PROGRAM EFFICIENCY, PUBLIC AWARENESS, AND REPORTING OF PROGRAM DATA

* Requiring the state to implement goals for timely payment of family temporary disability benefits and require the Commissioner of Labor and Workforce Development to issue annual reports regarding efforts to attain those goals.

* Directing the state to disseminate information about the rights and responsibilities of employers and employees regarding family temporary disability benefits.

* Requiring the collection and timely reporting of data on program usage and characteristics of program participants, which will help policymakers make informed decisions on future changes to the program.

“Whether it’s the seriousness of caring for a sick family member or helping a family member who has gone through the terrible ordeal of domestic violence or assault – or the great joy of bonding with and caring for a new child – New Jersey families need a paid leave program that works for them, not against them,” Prieto said. “We need to move this law forward with common sense progressive changes that everyone should be able to support. After all, a pro-worker state is a pro-business state. The two go hand-in-hand.”