A key legislator told business leaders Tuesday that the paid family leave bill they fiercely oppose won't advance in its current form, but a version will become law eventually.
Assembly Speaker Joseph J. Roberts said concerns about the bill's proposed 10 weeks off, and possible fraud, were issues he hopes to work with opponents to iron out.
Still, he said paid family leave, which has the endorsement of Governor Corzine, "will become a reality at some point in New Jersey."
Business owners are having none of it, however, in a bitter battle that has pitted them against powerful lobbying efforts from special-interest groups including the AARP, the National Organization for Women and several unions.
"It is an issue that has galvanized the business community like nothing else in the last few years," said Philip Kirschner, president of the New Jersey Business and Industry Association. "Because it goes to the guts of operating a business. You just can't do it with people absent for a great period of time."
Family leave bill
Key aspects of the proposal in the Legislature:
Roberts spoke to more than 300 business leaders gathered in Edison at the annual public policy forum organized by the NJBIA, a Trenton-based trade group.
Supporters say the bill, which would be funded through a payroll tax, would give employees relief from pressure at work in a time of family difficulty.
Business leaders call it "a legislative nightmare," an ill-conceived, costly measure that would disrupt the workplace, force them to hire replacement workers, and encourage fraud.
Roberts said that he will decide after a Democratic caucus on Thursday whether the bill will be posted for a vote before the legislative session ends in January, or not until the new session convenes.
The forum came after several days in which the bill's supporters steadily escalated their lobbying efforts.
Last week, the groups held a press conference denouncing the opposition of the business community. Supporters displayed hundreds of baby clothes bearing slogans such as "moms for moms" and "invest in families" to symbolize the importance of the issue to parents.
Corzine and Senate President Richard Codey both expressed support for paid family leave at Tuesday's forum, suggesting that the plan may not cause as much difficulty as the business community fears.
Codey said that in California, the only state with a paid family leave law, 85 percent of those who take it are pregnant women who most likely would have taken the time off anyway.
"The California experience has not been a bad one," he said.
Corzine, the featured speaker at the event, said he and other legislators who support the bill are willing to reduce the 10 weeks to six to appease the business community.
The governor, who nearly died in April when the SUV he was riding in crashed on the Garden State Parkway, said the accident, and the time his children spent at his bedside, brought home to him the need to give families such time off.
Corzine also suggested the bill may benefit employers by creating a friendly work environment that would attract talent. But he surprised business leaders by saying that small businesses could opt out of the proposal.
"My reading of the legislation is that they already have a choice to opt in or not," he said, after the forum.
That runs counter to past statements by sponsor Sen. Steven Sweeney, D-Gloucester, who has said small businesses are included, in part because of the difficulty of removing some employees from eligibility if they are all paying the payroll tax.
Kirschner was taken aback by Corzine's comments. "There is no opt-out provision," he said. "This bill applies to every single business in the state, whether you have two or 50 or 500 or 2,000 [employees]."
However, the bill does not require employers with fewer than 50 workers to rehire someone who takes paid time off. Supporters also reduced the time a worker can take off from 12 weeks in the initial bill to 10 weeks in the current version.
Roberts said he wants to see the bill rewritten to reduce the possibility of abuse, with workers taking paid time when they have no family medical situation.
Kirschner and other business leaders say the bill would force companies to do without key employees and train temporary workers. Kirschner said many employers already give workers paid time off to care for loved ones, and a law requiring it would burden them with restrictions.
Senate Republican leader Leonard Lance said he believes that family-leave laws should be handled at the federal level.
"My concern with paid family leave in New Jersey is that it would make us uncompetitive with states like Pennsylvania [in attracting businesses]," he said.
Copyright 2007 The Record