New and Expanded Benefits for New Jersey Employees
On February 19, 2019, Governor Phil Murphy signed into law a bill significantly expanding the rights and benefits for New Jersey employees under three existing laws. Specifically, this new law amends New Jersey’s Family Leave Act (“FLA”), New Jersey’s Family Leave Insurance benefits program (“FLI”) and New Jersey’s Security and Financial Empowerment Act (“SAFE”). Among other changes, under this new law many more New Jersey employees will be eligible for benefits and for leave for a longer period of time.
The FLA, which was enacted in 1993, has historically provided a protected unpaid leave of absence for employees to care for family members, as defined in that statute, for up to twelve (12) weeks. Recognizing that employees who required a leave of absence to care for a family member with a serious medical condition or to care for a child, whether newly born or adopted, were often unable to exercise their rights for financial reasons, in 2017 New Jersey amended the New Jersey Temporary Disability Benefits Law (“TDI”) by adding the FLI program in order to provide some wage replacement for up to six (6) weeks for certain eligible employees on such a leave of absence. New Jersey subsequently enacted SAFE, which provides eligible employees with unpaid leave to address a host of matters after an incident of domestic violence or a sexual assault suffered by the employee or certain family members.
This new legislation is convoluted and the changes confusing as some changes take effect immediately, while other provisions take effect over the next sixteen (16) months. Some of the provisions which are effective immediately are:
The new law significantly expands the definition of “family member” under the FLA and the FLI. For instance, the definition of family member now includes: a child placed for foster care, a parent-in-law, an individual who became a parent pursuant to a written gestational agreement, a sibling, grandparent, grandchild, domestic partner, any blood relative and any other individual with whom the employee has “the equivalent of a family relationship.” Individuals taking a protected leave of absence for a family member as newly defined are also eligible to receive FLI benefits during any such protected leave.
Employees eligible for SAFE leave will now be eligible to receive FLI benefits during any such leave of absence.
The new law eliminates the one week waiting period for FLI benefits.
The definition of “family member” under SAFE for whom an employee may take leave has been expanded and is similar to the definition of “family member” under the FLA.
Other provisions of this new legislation become effective on June 30, 2019, which will further expand the reach of these laws. In fact, while the FLA previously only applied to employers with 50 or more employees, the definition of a covered employer has been enlarged to provide that employers with at least 30 employees must provide unpaid family leave and must reinstate employees after they return from family leave. In addition, as of June 30, 2019, the FLA will expressly prohibit employers from retaliating against an employee who takes advantage of his/her right to FLA. This will have a significant impact on smaller employers, which now must take proactive steps to implement the appropriate policies and procedures in advance of June 30, 2019.
Finally, commencing as of July 1, 2020, employees eligible for FLI benefits (as well as TDI benefits) will see an increase in the weekly benefit amount. Thus, eligible employees will be entitled to receive 85% of their average weekly wages (a 19% increase over the current amount of 66% percent), capped at 70% of the statewide average weekly wage. This increase in benefits, which is entirely funded by weekly employee contributions, results in a maximum benefit of $860 per week – a $210 weekly increase from the maximum benefit for 2019.
All New Jersey employers must immediately review their policies to ensure that they comply with the amendments to FLA, FLI and SAFE and ensure that its Human Resources professionals receive appropriate training about the impact of this new law. What is even more challenging is that employers must also calendar a review of its policies and be prepared to comply with the upcoming amendments which become effective in June 2019 and July 2020.