Earlier this month, the General Assembly passed legislation intended to expand Rhode Island's temporary disability insurance program to allow up to four weeks of paid leave per year for workers caring for a seriously ill parent, child, grandparent or spouse or to bond with a new child. The bill, H-5889, will cover the costs by increasing the amount of money that is already taken out of each worker's paycheck for TDI.
Gov. Lincoln Chafee signed the bill into law July 11, 2013.
For the uninitiated, the state TDI program, pioneered in 1942 and the first of its kind in the United States, pays workers a portion of their lost income if they get sick for any reason.
It is separate from worker's compensation, which pays workers if they are injured on the job.
One opponent of the expansion plan was Rep. Patricia Morgan, a Republican from West Warwick. "There are only five states right now that mandate TDI. We're one of them. And we overuse it," she said. "I don't think we're an unhealthy place to live, but New Jersey, which also mandates TDI, only has 3 percent of their employees use the program in a year's time. Here in Rhode Island we have 9 percent. Something is out of whack."
She also reported that "those 9 percent are using it an average of 11.4 weeks. You can only take 12 [weeks] so clearly people are kind of pushing it to the very end. We need to do a study first on why we overuse TDI before we start expanding it."
Are Rhode Islanders really using TDI at a rate that's three time higher than New Jersey? We decided to check the numbers.
Morgan said she got her data from Ken Block, head of Rhode Island's Moderate Party and candidate for governor, who made a presentation on TDI costs earlier this year. She sent us a copy of a slide titled "Usage of TDI in Rhode Island versus New Jersey" that he used in a presentation.
In his presentation, Block said that, based on the 2011 annual report from the Rhode Island Department of Labor and Training (RIDLT) , 35,836 out of Rhode Island’s 393,000 wage earners received TDI payments that year. That's 9.1 percent.
But RIDLT spokeswoman Laura Hart cautioned that the 35,836 number is misleading. That's the number of claims filed each year, but it includes repeat claims from people who became sick more than once that year.
To get closer to the number of individuals using the system, you have to look at the number of first claims for the year, also known as "new claims." (That statistic is not listed in the annual report.) That number for 2011 was 30,953.
"If you divide that by the total universe of covered employees in 2011 (393,300), you get 7.9 percent," not 9.1 percent, she said in an e-mail. (The rate in 2012: 7.7 percent.)
We also checked Block's figures for New Jersey.
He said 3.77 percent of people covered by the TDI program there use the insurance each year. Once again, looking only at new claims, Block’s percentage was off, but only a bit -- the rate was 3.72 percent, according to data in the 2011 annual report by the New Jersey Department of Labor and Workforce Development. (Block gets other numbers wrong -- it's 101,627 claims, not 132,193 and 2.7 million workers were covered, not 3.5 million; but the percentage turns out to be comparable.)
In short, Rhode Islanders use TDI at twice the rate of New Jersey, not three times more as Morgan indicated.
Hart said it's difficult to accurately make a comparison. "RI and NJ run different TDI programs. Not only are they financed differently, but they don't cover the same universes. RI TDI is mandatory for all private sector employees. NJ, on the other hand, gives employers the option to offer state coverage or to buy private coverage. To get a true apple-to-apple participation rate for all private sector employees in NJ, you would have to include participation and coverage data for those with private coverage too."
In addition, the rules for each state program are different. In New Jersey, for example, a government employee isn't eligible for disability benefits until all sick leave has been exhausted.
And what about other states?
We tried to get comparable rates of utilization for California, New York and Hawaii, the other states with TDI coverage, but we couldn't find a quick source for comparable information. So we'll leave it to others to determine whether Rhode Island is really out of line and, if so, why.
Two more things.
First, Morgan was off a bit when she said people who take TDI in Rhode Island are using it for an average of 11.4 weeks. The average duration was actually 11.2 weeks. In New Jersey, it's 10.1 weeks.
More important, she was wrong to suggest in her comment that 11.4 weeks is close to a limit of 12 weeks. That's not the limit. It's up to 30 weeks per 12-month period, beginning when the person makes a claim. The actual allowed duration depends on the person's medically-certified health problem.
Rep. Patricia Morgan said that in Rhode Island, 9 percent of employees use TDI each year while in New Jersey, which also mandates TDI, the rate is only 3 percent.
The actual rates are closer to 8 percent in Rhode Island and 4 percent in New Jersey.
But New Jersey’s figures include only workers who receive state coverage, not private coverage. We don’t know how that would affect the usage rate there, but neither does Morgan.
Because Morgan’s figures are so far off, the judges rate her statement Mostly False.
(If you have a claim you’d like PolitiFact Rhode Island to check, e-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org. And follow us on Twitter: @politifactri.)