Newark resident Naome Dunnell, a working mother of three, doesn't expect to benefit anytime soon from enhancements to New Jersey's paid family and medical leave programs that went into effect on Wednesday.

But she's ecstatic for moms and dads in the state who will have the chance to take more time off of work to care for and bond with their new child, and collect potentially thousands of more dollars in the process.

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As part of a law signed in early 2019, the weekly benefit rate and the maximum benefit have now increased substantially for those who make use of Family Leave Insurance to care for a loved one. Workers can bring in 85% of their average weekly wage, up from two-thirds of their pay, and can enjoy those benefits for up to 12 consecutive weeks, up from the previous maximum of six weeks.

"I wish that I had more time. The 12 weeks would have really been a blessing for me," Dunnell said during a Zoom press conference celebrating the enhanced benefits.

The increase in wages also applies to those who use the state's Temporary Disability Insurance program, for their own health needs. Both TDI and FLI feature a benefits maximum of $881 per week.

"They support our workers by acknowledging caregiving as an integral part of American culture," said state Labor Commissioner Robert Asaro-Angelo. "We know our state has a significant sandwich generation — the workforce is taking care of both children and aging parents and relatives, all of whom now suddenly find themselves in the midst of a global health and caregiving emergency as well, so timing couldn't be more right for this."

New Jersey became one of the first states to offer paid family leave in 2009. But workers' right advocates have suggested too few workers and families knew the benefits existed, and that the pay awarded wasn't enough to keep many families afloat while away from work.

"Families should not have to choose between bonding with their children and putting food on the table," said Peter Chen, staff attorney with Advocates for Children of New Jersey.

New Jerseyans have been paying since Jan. 1, 2020, to make these enhancements possible. Workers devote 0.16% of their pay to the FLI program, and 0.26% to temporary disability. The most a worker can contribute in 2020 (those who earn at least $134,900 yearly) for family leave is $215.84, and $350.74 for disability.

"I think, relative to the benefits, it is actually quite affordable," said Yarrow Willman-Cole, the workplace justice program director at New Jersey Citizen Action. "While it is going up, it is still relatively low, especially compared to some other states."

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