Assembly Speaker Joseph Roberts declared his opposition – sort of – to a bill creating paid family leave rights when he spoke to a New Jersey Business and Industry Association forum this week.
The Camden County Democrat vowed that legislation to compensate workers caring for sick relatives or newborns, in its present form, was "not going to advance." On the other hand, Roberts noted that the program "will become a reality at some point in New Jersey."
Perhaps the speaker's Rorschach rhetoric – "Family leave is dead. Long live family leave!" – was a function of the audience. The business lobby's rabid hostility toward the notion seems to require some appeasement, even from Democratic leaders who are generally sympathetic to the legislation. Witness Governor Corzine, who supports the bill but told the forum that he would be amenable to reducing the allowed leave from 10 weeks to six.
Roberts said he would decide shortly whether to post a family leave bill for a vote during the current session, which ends in early January. He should, and the Legislature should pass it.
Business lobbyists and their allies would have us believe that this progressive and relatively modest protection for workers heralds a Bolshevik revolution. They have called the legislation a "nightmare" that "has galvanized the business community like nothing else." They have raised the specter of workers taking "10 weeks of paid vacation every year" for "any reason at all."
We can only hope that this overheated, irrational resistance to employee rights does not represent the majority of the state's employers. In fact, this legislation – even without the additional compromises being hastily offered up – would cost businesses little and would hardly encourage frivolous leave-taking.
The new benefit would be limited to workers caring for newborns or sick members of their immediate families (parents, children, spouses or domestic partners). It would be funded entirely by a small tax on employee payrolls, 0.18 percent, with employers contributing nothing. It adds no new job protection over the current law allowing unpaid family leave, which means that small businesses (those with fewer than 50 employees) would even be allowed to fire employees who go on leave. And workers must exhaust their vacation and other paid leave first.
Perhaps most important and ill understood, the bill provides powerful disincentives against unnecessary leave. The benefit would pay only two-thirds of wages up to a maximum of about $500 a week, or the equivalent of a $26,000 yearly salary. In other words, no one is going to get rich taking family leave.
You probably haven't heard much from the opposition about the economic devastation caused by paid family leave in California, the only state that offers it (several others are considering it). That's because there hasn't been any devastation. Relatively few workers claim the benefit each year, and the overwhelming majority take it to care for newborns. Given society's dramatic shift from one- to two-income households, this is a small and overdue concession to modern realities.
Copyright 2007 The Record