Gov. Jon S. Corzine, who spent weeks in the hospital this spring, has the zeal of the converted when he speaks about providing New Jersey employees with paid family leave. A bill to do just that has been before the Legislature all term and Corzine is pushing to get it approved in the lame-duck session.
Corzine is not always quick to understand the travails of middle-income folks, but this time he gets it. His kids and his girlfriend dropped what they were doing to sit by his bedside when he was injured in an automobile accident in April. Many of us in the same situation would be less fortunate since our loved ones simply couldn't afford to stop working. As it stands, the bill would probably make little difference in the lives of working-class citizens, who are unlikely to be able to absorb even the limited cuts in pay the bill dictates.
Still, paid family leave is the right thing to do for all the obvious reasons: because at the beginning and the end of life, family is more important than any job; because if a loved one needs us, we ought not have to think about whether we can afford to be with them.
That does not mean there aren't considerations to be made before passing such a bill.
Most important, sponsors need to try harder to get businesses on their side. As it stands, most business owners see the prospect of such legislation as one more regulation in an overly regulated state, one more expense in a state where the cost of doing business is already inflated. They are not necessarily wrong.
But the number of employees who are likely to take advantage of paid family leave at any one time is likely to be small, a minimal inconvenience and cost for most businesses, one the vast majority are able to bear. Better yet, paid family leave might even pay them back. There is an advantage for industry when an employee who might otherwise be forced to leave a job for good to care for an ill or injured family member can take a brief leave of absence and return to work without worry or fear of financial ruin. As a result, businesses in many cases would be saved the often exorbitant cost of training a permanent replacement worker and they would get a happier – and presumably more productive – employee in return.
Money to finance the program would come out of disability and would be paid for by a $1 a week tax on employees, not employers. Plus, there is a significant cap – about $500 a week – on payouts. The length of leave also is capped, at 10 weeks. The bill also requires employees to use available vacation time before applying for paid family leave, a provision that will go a long way toward curtailing abuse.
But none of those safeguards are of any use if business perceives the legislation as overreaching. Sponsors have complained that the business community has been uncooperative and uncompromising and have bristled at the suggestion that small businesses be exempt from the provision. Obviously, however, if proponents really want paid family leave, they may need to make more concessions. Small businesses, indeed, may find the legislation alarming; those employers, however, also are more likely to know their workers and to simply extend leave without being dictated to by the state.
There ought to be a compromise that works for everyone. Corzine has been a good cheerleader to this point. But if he really wants to get the bill passed, he might also need to be a negotiator and a diplomat. He was a businessman before he was a governor, and he ought to work that connection now.