The New Jersey Legislature should end its stalling on a reasonable bill that would provide families with a financial safety net when a relative needs care.
Paid family leave will become a standard benefit in the United States one of these years, but now it's rare. If Trenton approves the plan, New Jersey would become only the third state to allow paid time off to take care of a sick relative or a newborn child.
The bill sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Steve Sweeney (D., Gloucester) is sensible, modest and compassionate. But unless the Senate and Assembly approve it before they adjourn this year, the bill will die. Next year, legislators would need to begin work on it all over again.
Sweeney's proposal would allow an employee to take off for up to 10 weeks to care for a sick relative, a newborn or a newly adopted child. A worker would get paid up to two-thirds of his or her salary, up to $502 per week, during the leave.
The money would come from mandatory employee contributions to a fund – $1 for every $1,000 of salary. For a worker earning $50,000 per year, it would cost $50 annually. Companies wouldn't pay the cost of this fund.
But businesses oppose the measure, arguing it would create a hardship for companies to hold open a job or fill it with temporary help. Trying to address employers' concerns, Sweeney has made a major concession. He agreed that companies with fewer than 50 employees don't need to guarantee a job to workers who take a family leave. Larger companies must promise these workers a job when they return from leave.
Under federal law, U.S. workers have been allowed since 1993 to take up to 12 weeks of unpaid family leave. But this country lags far behind the rest of the world in granting workers paid time off. Around the world, 168 countries guarantee paid leave for women after they have a child. The only nations that don't, according to a 2007 study, are the United States, Liberia, Papua New Guinea, Lesotho and Swaziland. The majority of American employees don't have paid maternity leave.
Also, 137 nations offer workers paid annual leave for illnesses. But in the United States, there is no legal guarantee of paid sick time. Only about half of middle-class Americans receive sick leave from private employers.
New Jersey's proposal is timely, as more adults grapple with caring for elderly parents and children. Granting employees such peace of mind and a financial security will lead to workers being more productive.
Only California now offers paid family leave. Washington state's plan is set to take effect in 2009. New Jersey could be on the leading edge of a needed wave. The Legislature should approve this worthy proposal now.
Copyright 2007 The Philadelphia Inquirer