Although New Jersey is a “national leader in policies that support working families,” the state’s paid family leave insurance program is a work in progress, said Debra Lancaster, executive director of the Rutgers Center for Women and Work, and one of the lead authors of the study.
“When workers don’t know the program exists, or they have trouble applying, or the payments take too long to arrive, then clearly we have work to do,” she continued in a statement accompanying the report.
The state’s paid family leave program was enacted in 2009 and expanded in 2019 in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. Like the state’s beleaguered unemployment system, the family leave system is dependent on antiquated technology. New Jersey’s jobless benefits program depends on the decades-old COBOL computer programming, while the family leave and temporary disability programs rely on a claims management system that runs on a 1988 mainframe. The result is delays of weeks or months for claimants to get their payments.
Only 53% of New Jerseyans know that family leave exists, which the study attributes to a failure on the part of the Department of Labor & Workforce Development to meet its “legal obligation” to spend $1.2 million a year on education and outreach. Those earning less than $100,000 a year are less aware than those making over $100,000, 41% and 65% respectively.
State labor officials estimate that 177,898 New Jerseyans will have been served by either the TDI or FLI programs by the end of 2021.
Most claims were completed within 28 days, and those few that weren’t were because of “lag time” in receiving medical records, a spokesperson said.
Paper applications are time-consuming, while online applications include confusing questions that tripped the system and led to further delays. Of particular frustration for many applicants were questions on the last day worked, as it was “not clear what they mean by the last day worked, last day paid by the company,” the study found.
“[T]hat portion was confusing because it could mean so many different things for different people,” it continues.
The state labor department should set up a help-line for applicants, who for now have to rely on assistance from informal Facebook groups.
Human resources departments also are “ill-equipped to guide their employees through the process,” and suggested that the NJDOL keep businesses in the loop on any changes to the process.
“Employees mentioned that if their HR department had an organized way to talk about leave, they found it much easier to apply for and receive the benefits,” researchers found. In several instances, claimants had to get the necessary information outside of their employer.
Labor officials maintained that a toolkit for employers is being developed, and that they’ve been working to modernize the FLI technology, as well as build awareness of the insurance benefits through a multilingual campaign.
Editor’s note: This story was updated at 12:27 p.m. EST on Dec. 7, 2021, to include remarks from the New Jersey Department of Labor & Workforce Development.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row]