Though it's becoming increasingly doubtful lawmakers will approve a measure guaranteeing workers paid family leave in the next three-plus weeks, Assembly Speaker Joe Roberts said Thursday it will become law soon.
Roberts, D-Camden, and his fellow Assembly Democrats huddled privately and remained unconvinced whether to proceed in the lame-duck session that ends Jan. 8 with the plan that's being pushed heavily by advocacy groups that have filled the Statehouse corridors to pressure lawmakers in the session's waning days.
The measure, whose most prominent supporters include Gov. Jon S. Corzine and Sen. Stephen Sweeney, D-Gloucester, would provide workers paid time off, likely up to six weeks, to care for sick or newborn family members. It would be funded by a roughly $1 per week increase in workers' payroll taxes.
But concerns raised largely by business groups, which say the measure would disrupt their trade and kill smaller companies, have prompted some lawmakers to hesitate, including Democrats who would seemingly support such a labor-friendly measure.
"These issues are surmountable," Roberts said in a prepared statement. "And it is my belief that a paid-family-leave insurance bill will soon become law in New Jersey. It's not a question of if, it's a question of when."
Sweeney made similar comments before he had heard the outcome of the Assembly Democrats' afternoon caucus discussion.
"It's not dead at all, it's a matter of timing," said Sweeney. "As far as I'm concerned, it's not a matter of if, it's a matter of when. It's happening."
There has been much confusion about how the measure would affect businesses that employ fewer than 50 workers. Business groups say the measure offers no protection to small business. Some advocates say the measure allows small businesses to replace needed workers who take leave. The Corzine administration interprets it a step further, saying a small business can deny a worker's leave request. Then, the worker must decide whether to not take leave or take it and quit the job.
"A small business employer has the right to just deny the leave – denies," Labor Commissioner David Socolow said. "The only way you'd be able to get it would be to quit your job. And that's it. You don't get unemployment if you quit your job. You get nothing. You have no job, no health insurance prospectively, and no unemployment benefits."
Sweeney, who has described the small business provision to mean that they wouldn't be required to hold positions for leaving workers, said the difference is just semantics.
Ev Liebman, program director at Citizen Action, took some solace that Roberts pledged the bill will pass soon.
"We're disappointed we didn't have a better decision today, but we certainly are going to continue to fight as hard as we've been fighting until we get it here in New Jersey," Liebman said.
Countered Philip Kirschner, president of the New Jersey Business Association: "We're going to remain vigilant throughout the rest of the lame-duck session and we'll see what happens."