Paid Leave Plan Gets Boost In New Jersey

Newsday — Monday, November 19, 2007

Associated Press Writer

TRENTON, N.J. — Lauren Agoratus admits she and her husband were unique.

They had neither credit card debt nor car loans and their student loans were paid.

But that changed in 1992 when their daughter Stephanie was born with a kidney disease that left her in a hospital and needing intensive care for months.

Their first hospital bill was $28,000, and they ended up paying their mortgage on a credit card. Soon, they found themselves $20,000 in debt.

"We almost lost our home," said Agoratus, of Hamilton in Mercer County.

They took advantage of federal law that let them each to take up to 12 weeks of leave from work, but it was unpaid. Agoratus described that as a good first step that let them keep their jobs, but added, "It wasn't enough."

"Paid family leave is essential," she said.

Agoratus is among those hoping New Jersey will soon become the third state offering paid time off from work to care for a sick relative or new child.

The AARP, AFL-CIO and other groups on Monday announced they're joining together for a significant new push to pass the law.

"Paid family leave is a win-win for all in a decent, caring society," said Marilyn Askin of AARP New Jersey.

But it remains unclear whether the proposal will be approved before the new Legislature convenes on Jan. 8. All bills that don't pass before then expire.

The bill's sponsor, Sen. Stephen Sweeney, told The Associated Press he might be willing to cut the proposed New Jersey leave to six weeks if that helps get it passed. He's been proposing 10 weeks paid leave.

"I think it's the right thing to do for New Jersey workers," Sweeney said.

Sweeney's plan was approved by a Senate committee in June, but hasn't advanced.

Sweeney noted six weeks of leave would match New Jersey with California, which in 2004 became the first state to allow workers to take paid leave. Washington will allow workers to take five weeks paid leave as of October 2009.

Sweeney, D-Gloucester, said he's already agreed to allow businesses with less than 50 employees to tell workers taking leave that they wouldn't be guaranteed to keep their job after the leave.

"That's an enormous concession," Sweeney said.

But business leaders remain unmoved, said Phillip Kirschner, president of the New Jersey Business & Industry Association. He said businesses plan to mount an aggressive opposition.

"This has energized our members like nothing else because it gets to the heart of operating their business," Kirschner said. "You just can't go without people for a long period."

Such concern has the attention of Assembly Speaker Joseph Roberts Jr.

"I support paid family leave and I believe that it is destined to become law in New Jersey," said Roberts, D-Camden. "Our challenge right now is to try to find the middle ground on this issue, particularly with respect to its impact on small businesses."

The leave would be paid through a charge against weekly wages that legislative officials estimate would cost workers about $1 per week. Workers who take leave could get up to $502 per week, depending on their salary.

Kirschner said businesses ranging from a gift shop to a hospital to a manufacturing facility shouldn't be lumped into the same law.

"You can't have a one-size-fits-all," Kirschner said.

But Charlie Wowkanech, the New Jersey AFL-CIO president, said the plan "leads to a healthier work environment and therefore increased productivity."

Copyright 2007 Newsday Inc.

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