As family and work patterns have shifted over recent decades, the demand for time off from work to address family needs has grown rapidly. “Work-family balance” has become an urgent but elusive priority for millions of Americans, driven by high labor force participation rates among mothers as well as the caregiving needs of an aging population.  Women—and increasingly men as well—often find themselves caught between the competing pressures of paid work and family responsibilities, especially when they become parents or when serious illness strikes a family member.

In the U.S., workers typically rely on a patchwork of employer-provided benefits to make ends meet, such as paid sick leave, vacation, disability insurance, and/or parental and family leave. However, such employer-provided benefits are by no means universally available. Managers and professionals, as well as public-sector workers and others covered by collective bargaining agreements, often do have access to benefits that provide some form of wage replacement during a family leave.  But vast sectors of the U.S. workforce have little or no access to paid sick days or paid vacation, and paid parental or family leave is even rarer. The situation is particularly acute for low-wage workers.

Against this background, California’s implementation of the nation’s first comprehensive Paid Family Leave (PFL) program in 2004 was a historic breakthrough. In 2009, New Jersey became the second state in the nation to implement a Family Leave Insurance (FLI) program to provide partial wage replacement for workers during periods of family leave. For up to 12 months after a birth or adoption, or at any time for the care of a seriously ill child, parent, spouse, or domestic partner, workers in these two states – both women and men – are eligible for six weeks of partial wage replacement per year. The programs in both California and New Jersey were designed in part to address the sharp disparities among workers in access to paid family leave. In particular, low-wage workers who previously had limited or no access to wage replacement during leaves stood to gain from family leave insurance, which promised to narrow the gap in access to paid leave between the “haves” and “have-nots.”

In both states the effectiveness of the paid leave programs in leveling the playing field for low-wage workers has been severely hampered by a lack of awareness of the programs on the part of residents of the two states.

Data from a New Jersey poll conducted in August 2012 finds that just under 40 percent of residents were aware of the State’s FLI program (42.5 percent of women and 36.5 percent of men). Union households were more likely to be aware of the program than non-union households by a wide margin, 52.0 percent compared with 36.3 percent. Awareness of the program increased with income, with residents earning less than $50,000 a year least likely to know about the program.

A September 2011 poll of Californians found similar results.  Seven years after California’s Paid Family Leave Program went into effect, only 42.7 percent of respondents had “seen, read or heard” of the PFL program. As in New Jersey, union households were substantially more aware of the program than non-union households, while awareness was substantially lower among disadvantaged groups, including those with lower household income, than in other demographic groups.

The New Jersey Poll also asked workers their opinion of FLI.  After hearing a brief description of the existing program, more than three of every four respondents (76.4 percent) indicated a favorable opinion of FLI. The poll found that favorability was high for all demographic groups by gender, race/ethnicity, age, marital status, union affiliation, employment status, and income. It was lowest for those aged 65 and older, but even in that group 63.4 percent of respondents had a favorable opinion of FLI.

Awareness of the FLI program is particularly low among disadvantaged residents who need the program most to offset the financial challenges associated with an unpaid caregiving leave. Given low levels of awareness and use, the number of New Jerseyans who experienced an event that might lead to a family leave and who seriously considered taking such a leave, but who ultimately did not take it, warrants attention: 14.7 percent of women and 9.6 percent of men. Of those who reported having been in this situation, over 76 percent of women and 56 percent of men said that they could not financially afford to take an unpaid leave. Financially disadvantaged adults, including those with incomes less than $50,000, were far more likely than others to attribute their decision not to take leave to financial reasons. 

The need for family leave to care for a newborn, newly adopted, or new foster child or a seriously ill family member remains high across all demographic groups. Lack of awareness of FLI means that many New Jersey workers, including those who could benefit most from the program, do not take advantage of it. Until awareness of PFL spreads more widely – especially among low-wage workers and other disadvantaged groups, the program will not achieve its intended effect of reducing the longstanding disparity between workers in access to wage replacement during family leaves. The challenge is to ensure that these benefits are universally accessible in practice as well as in theory. New Jersey – and California too – must increase outreach to the states’ residents to assure that they are aware that the programs exist and knowledgeable about the purposes for which family leave insurance can be used.