Return Of Paid Family Leave

NJBIZ — Monday, January 15, 2007

BY Scott Goldstein

STATEHOUSE — A bill that would make New Jersey the second state to offer paid family leave – and would extend it to the smallest businesses – is getting an aggressive push from its sponsor. Despite serious reservations from business advocates and Republicans, the measure (S-2249) appears to be picking up support from key Democratic lawmakers.

"I'm looking to move it," says sponsor Sen. Stephen M. Sweeney (D-Gloucester), who chairs the Senate Labor Committee. Sweeney plans to discuss the bill with Senate President Richard Codey (D-Essex) before scheduling a hearing before the committee, which meets Jan. 25.

Sweeney, who is joined as primary sponsor by Sen. Barbara Buono (D-Middlesex), knows the bill faces stiff opposition. In recent years, paid family leave measures have failed to gain strong traction.

"Business is politically opposed to family leave," Sweeney said. "Employers don't want to pay for it. And they are concerned that if it happens here in New Jersey, what is next?

"But under this bill, [business owners] don't pay for it," Sweeney says. Money for the benefit would come from the state's Temporary Disability Insurance (TDI) fund, to which employees already contribute through paycheck deductions.

Sweeney says the measure won't disrupt plants or offices any more than current arrangements in which workers use unpaid leave to recover from illnesses or care for family members. "How do companies now cope with unpaid leave?" he asks.

The bill would extend family leave benefits to companies with 50 or fewer employees. Current state and federal laws mandate unpaid leave at businesses with more than 50 workers.

Business advocates say they fear the bill bill would encourage more people to take family leave, forcing companies to find last-minute temporary replacements for periods of up to three months. Republican critics in the Legislature maintain that the bill would further tarnish the state's reputation as a place to do business.

The measure would continue to allow private- and public-sector employees to take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave per year to care for seriously ill immediate family members and for newborns and adopted children. For the first time, however, workers would be entitled to two-thirds of their pay, up to a ceiling of $488 per week. Companies could require employees to take up to two weeks of available sick or vacation time before receiving benefits under the bill.

Workers would be required to pay an additional one-tenth of 1 percent of their pretax earnings into TDI. Employees making the $7.15 state minimum wage would pay an additional 28 cents a week; those making $94,000 would pay an additional $1.80 per week. Supporters say the average worker would pay less than a dollar per week.

Assembly Speaker Joseph Roberts Jr. (D-Camden) says paid leave will also be considered in his chamber, where a companion bill (A-3812) has been introduced. "We have to be mindful of the kinds of businesses affected," says Roberts. "If [a company] loses an individual for a period of time, that is a burden on a small business. And second, where the money comes from is an issue. We will move slowly and carefully; we recognize the impact."

Cosponsoring the Assembly bill are Nelson Albano (D-Cape May), Michael Panter (D-Monmouth),, Sheila Oliver (D-Essex), Jeff Van Drew (D-Atlantic) and Joseph Vas (D-Middlesex).

Roberts says that while California is the only state that currently offers paid family leave, other states are considering it. Sweeney says that Californians who have used the leave have done so for an average of only two weeks. The California law took effect in 2004 and grants up to six weeks a year of paid leave.

Sweeney stressed that his bill offers protections against employees abusing paid leave. For example, employers can require proof from a physician that the worker or an immediate family member is sick. Moreover, workers would have to use some accrued vacation and personal time before they can take family leave.

"Who will exhaust all their vacation and personal time to get weeks of leave?" Sweeney asked. "I listened to all business interests and we did our research."

The proposed legislation was the subject of a contentious debate last month when legislators addressed hundreds of business leaders at an event sponsored by the New Jersey Business & Industry Association (NJBIA).

"We are slowly becoming a socialistic state here in New Jersey," declared Assemblyman Alex Decroce (R-Morris), who called paid family leave the latest proposal in a long line of mandates on Garden State companies. "Paid family leave sounds good," says Decroce, "but if we impose it we will damage the business environment in the state even more and you will see more businesses begging to leave the state. And we won't be able to blame them."

Responded Sen. Bernard Kenny (D-Hudson): "There are some things that are not profit-driven that society has an obligation to address. That's not socialism. That is a special compact between the private and public sectors."

Supporters of the bill represent a diverse coalition of organizations that include unions representing teachers and state employees. Supporters say it is critical for the state to recognize that there are more working parents in New Jersey than ever before who must juggle the demands of job and family.

"The administration believes workers should have the support they need to balance work responsibilities with their families' needs, and we're reviewing this legislation," says Brendan Gilfillan, spokesman for Gov. Jon Corzine.

Business advocates promise a fight. "Even though the business community will not have to take a dollar out of their pocket for leave, they will have to find a [qualified] replacement [worker] and there is no guarantee of that," says Jim Leonard, legislative lobbyist for the New Jersey Chamber of Commerce.

Adds NJBIA President Philip Kirschner: "There is a reason why only one state has adopted it. It doesn't make sense for an economy that is trying to grow or create jobs. It's a major productivity drain."

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