Asbury Park Press

McGreevey's Paid Sick Leave Proposal A Modest First Step

Asbury Park Press — Sunday, January 22, 2004

By Judith L. Lichtman and Phyllis Salowe-Kaye

When Gov. McGreevey proposed in his State of the State address last week to give New Jersey's working parents two days of paid leave each year to care for sick children or to support their children's education, he offered a real-world solution to real-world problems that millions of working mothers and fathers face.

By any standard, McGreevey's proposal is moderate, measured and long overdue. Working families might even call it merely a first step toward ensuring that New Jersey workers don't have to choose between the jobs they need and the families they love. Why then did it spark such furious debate?

The sad answer is that, in recent years, some business interests have developed a knee-jerk reaction to family-friendly initiatives. They warn of dire consequences if the initiative is enacted. They claim it will cost employers tens of millions of dollars, using figures that any responsible economist would challenge. And, at a time when nothing worries Americans more, they claim the initiative will cost precious jobs.

History tells an entirely different story. During the eight years that women's, children's, community, senior, consumer and other groups fought to pass the Family & Medical Leave Act, some special business interests fought the measure every step of the way. They warned that the sky would fall if the act became law. They said it would subvert the free market. And they tossed around terrifying numbers of dollars and jobs that the law was certain to cost.

Those scare tactics bore no relationship to the truth. The act became law 10 years ago last August, and in the years afterward, our nation had the strongest peacetime economy in its history. And in the last decade, more than 40 million Americans have benefited from the family leave provisions. More parents have spent precious time with new babies. Fewer children have faced hospital stays alone. And more workers have been able to care for parents and spouses in emergencies.

The scare tactics being used in New Jersey today are equally specious. More and more savvy employers recognize that family-friendly measures reduce absenteeism and turnover, increase employee productivity and build company loyalty. As a result, they are adopting family-friendly measures on their own, without prompting from government. For instance, Merck & Co. has on-site child care centers, and Arnold & Porter gives new parents eight weeks of parental leave with full pay.

But for every Arnold & Porter and Merck, there are many companies that give their workers no paid sick leave, no paid vacation, no time off to handle family emergencies and no flexibility to support children's education. Forty-seven percent of private-sector workers in this country and 76 percent of low-wage workers have no paid sick leave, even to recover from their own illnesses. Only a fraction of those workers who have paid sick leave can use it to care for sick children.

McGreevey's proposal is an important first step in addressing those issues by making New Jersey families' day-to-day lives more manageable. It will be a lifeline for workers, giving full-time employees 16 hours of job-protected paid leave to attend to their children's education or emergency medical needs each year. It will give part-time employees eight hours of the same. And it will have the added benefit of involving more parents in their children's education, which is one of the leading indicators of a child's success in school. It is one of the most promising leave initiatives that we have seen this year.

It is a false dichotomy to conclude that what is good for working families is bad for businesses. McGreevey's proposal is pro-family and pro-business. It will help families and it will make businesses stronger.

Two days for sick kids. It's not unreasonable. New Jersey lawmakers should pass this measure without delay, and make this state the first to offer employees this kind of paid leave. In doing so, lawmakers here would set an example that other states are sure to follow. It's time.

Judith Lichtman is president of the National Partnership for Women and Families. Phyllis Salowe-Kaye is executive director of New Jersey Citizen Action, a member of the New Jersey Paid Leave Coalition.
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