By Yana van der Meulen Rodgers
The United States is the only industrialized country that has no paid family leave legislation, leaving this important benefit up to states and employers.
New Jersey is one of only four states to offer paid leave, and our Family Leave Insurance (FLI) program has helped tens of thousands of workers take time off work to bond with a new baby or adopted child, and care for seriously ill family members.
Despite the program's overall success, many New Jersey employees are not using it. This lack of uptake needs to change, and one solution is greater job protection.
Who is not taking advantage of this policy? Even though the program is funded entirely through small payroll tax deductions and men and women are equally eligible to apply, far fewer men are utilizing the benefits. Of the 32,171 people who used FLI in 2016, only 15 percent were men. We need more people, especially men, to use the program, and increasing their participation will help to increase gender equality.
Why aren't more men taking leave? Perhaps men are concerned that caring for family and going on leave will generate perceptions that they are not committed to their jobs. Studies have shown that employers are less likely to see mothers as competent and deserving of promotions. Yet large numbers of men taking leave would work against this stigma and reduce disparities between working mothers and fathers in terms of wages, workplace advancement, and caregiving responsibilities.
As much as 10 percent of the gender wage gap is the result of gender differences in work experience, with women more frequently choosing flexible scheduling and intermittent exits from the labor market. The fact that childrearing is still considered women's work also results in employers "maternal profiling" all women - regardless if they have children - and assuming they have less workplace commitment than men.
Entire families lose when only women are expected to care for children. In fact, fathers who take time off work at and around childbirth are more likely to be involved in childcare later in the child's life and those children do better developmentally. A Pew Research center poll found that while fathers are spending more time with their children than previous generations, they want to do more. Moreover, as women's income contribution to the household increases, policies like paid family leave become a matter of economic necessity.
Current efforts among New Jersey policymakers and advocates to improve and expand FLI will go a long way to enhance the program's accessibility. Legislation could move forward as early as this week. However, we need to address one of the largest deterrents to taking leave: the lack of job protection. Workers eligible for FLI leave are only guaranteed their jobs back if they meet particular qualifications, leaving thousands without this key protection. Many workers do not use FLI for fear they will be punished, demoted, or fired.
A study of California's PFL program found that 37 percent of workers who were eligible for and needed paid leave did not take it for fear of negative repercussions at work, including job loss. Research in NJ found that lack of job security is a major barrier to taking leave, especially by fathers. Job protection would help to increase uptake and bridge the gender gap in usage.
Increasing access to paid family leave can also help dismantle archaic social expectations that women serve as primary caregivers. Tackling these social norms will allow New Jersey to move toward gender equality - an issue which the Murphy administration has embraced as a key priority. Guaranteeing job protection for everyone, along with the other proposed fixes to the program, will help meet this goal.
Family time is too important to let workers' fear of job loss stop them from taking advantage of paid family leave. Improving the program and making FLI more accessible for everyone will empower women in the workplace, encourage men as caregivers, support household economic security, and move us toward gender equality.
Yana van der Meulen Rodgers is a professor and the incoming director of the Center for Women and Work at Rutgers University School of Management and Labor Relations.