State Senate President Steve Sweeney, Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg and advocates for working families celebrated the fourth anniversary of New Jersey’s Paid Family Leave Insurance program by attending a birthday party in honor of the law.

Also joining them at the party was Senator Linda Greenstein, who was a sponsor of the law as an assemblywoman. In case you’re wondering; yes there was cake.

The Paid Family Leave Act permits workers to apply for up to six weeks paid leave to care for a newborn or newly adopted child, or a sick parent, spouse or child. Family leave benefits are funded by an employee payroll tax. Workers are entitled to two-thirds of their weekly wages up to maximum in 2012 of $572. Since the program began, over 80,000 claims have been approved.

Sweeney explains, “Everyone said everyone was going to abuse it and take advantage of it. It’s worked so well we actually reduced the tax. It went from $36 dollars a year down to $24 a year. For $24 dollars a year you basically are buying an insurance policy in case a catastrophe hits your family.”

“The value of this program to workers, from both a financial and social perspective is immense,” says Charles Wowkanech, President of the New Jersey AFL-CIO. “This program provides wage replacement so workers don’t have to choose between paying their mortgages and spending time with a new born baby or seriously ill family member when they need it the most – and that is priceless.”

While the majority of claims approved thus far have been for bonding with newborns or newly adopted children, more than 15,000 New Jerseyans have used it to take care of sick family members, including spouses, domestic or civil union partners, parents or children.

A new study, released this week by the Center for Women and Work at Rutgers University and the National Partnership for Women & Families, that finds public assistance and food stamp use is lower for new mothers who live in states with paid leave policies, especially when these mothers use the paid leave available to them.

“It brings me great joy to know that New Jersey now extends this crucial pro-family support to all of its workers, not just a select few,” says Sweeney. “When my own daughter was born 18 years ago, I was lucky enough to have an employer who understood the situation and allowed me to take the time I needed. But had I been in a different job, I could have faced the prospect of choosing between spending 75 days at the hospital with my newborn or working to provide for my growing family. Thanks to Family Leave Insurance, New Jerseyans no longer have to make that kind of agonizing decision.”