The Star-Ledger

Family Leave Is Good For Business

The Star-Ledger — Sunday, June 3, 2007

By Fran Wood

Too often, New Jersey business owners and their representatives seem to subscribe to the philosophy of reject first, ask questions later.

Why else would they automatically oppose family leave legislation that would cost them nothing, and have built-in measures to prevent fraud?

Truth is, the family leave bill (S- 2249) the Legislature is now considering is not that big a deal. If passed, it will simply require employers to allow an employee up to 10 weeks of paid leave to care for an ill family member or a new baby. It would be wholly funded by a small tax on wages – a little under a dollar a week from all workers.

But at state Senate hearings last month, state Chamber of Commerce president Joan Verplanck sounded the thunder of doom. Such a law would further tarnish New Jersey's already sullied reputation as a viable place to do business, she warned, calling it "one more nail in the coffin."

That kind of ominous rhetoric, replies Jon Shure, president of the Trenton-based research group New Jersey Policy Perspective, is just what business has always said about proposed worker benefits.

"The minimum wage, child labor laws, Social Security, they all were seen as communistic, the end of the world as we know it," he says. "Then the program goes into effect, and they discover they can live with it."

Shure predicts the same outcome in this case. "Very few people will even take family leave in a given year, and many of those who do won't take the full amount."

My guess is that this bill may even make things sunnier for New Jersey business, because it will be an incentive for workers to come to the state or stay. That's certainly the opinion of the bill's proponents, including co-sponsor Sen. Barbara Buono (D-Middlesex).

Testimony from business representatives at the Senate hearing, she noted, "suggested passing the family leave law would depress job creation, and failure to pass it would stimulate job creation. That's ludicrous. A pro-family policy would decrease absenteeism, and increase work morale. ... This law would make for a more compassionate workplace."

Those who fear employees would use such a law to scam additional time off – Shure has heard concern expressed that some might seek family leave "to go deer hunting" – may not realize such a scam would be far more trouble than it would be worth.

First, applicants need a doctor's note attesting to the family member's needs. Then an employer can require an approved candidate to first use two weeks of his/her vaca tion. And the compensation – two- thirds of the employee's weekly salary, up to $502 a week – is hardly going to finance a lavish lifestyle.

If the law passes, it will be the second of its kind in the country, following California's. So in a strict sense Verplanck is correct: New Jersey will have one more regulation than fellow East Coast states.

But Buono predicts there will be a domino effect, noting that other states are considering similar legislation now – including New York, which may allow 12 weeks off.

In any case, there are larger ar guments for passing this bill, start ing with common sense. Once upon a time, when most families relied on a single wage-earner, care of sick family members and newborns would be handled by the family member who stayed at home. But that's not our economic model today. Increasingly, for a variety of reasons, we have become a nation of dual-employment families – a recasting that has served business very well. Take tens of millions of "second" wage-earners out of the work force, send them back home, and you've got a crisis that could implode the economy.

That business has made out quite well with this new model, however, does come at a cost, as any family with children or elderly relatives can attest. There will be times when it is imperative to have a physical presence in the home – and guaranteeing employees can have that presence without forfeiting all income seems, in the bigger picture, the least we can and should do.

In fact, most countries do it already. Buono notes a McGill University study found that in matters like these, the U.S. lags behind many other countries, including some far less economically ad vanced.

As Shure accurately notes, "The workplace of the 21st century is not the workplace of the 20th century."

Periodically accommodating a relatively small number of employees to care for a needy family member sounds more like a light in the window than a nail in a coffin.

Copyright 2007 The Star-Ledger

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