The Times, Trenton

Paid Family Leave

The Times of Trenton — Wednesday, December 12, 2007



The business lobby should stop spewing its nonsense that paid family leave would doom the state's economy. In fact, being partially paid to care for a sick family member or for a newborn is good for families and for the work place. And to the business community, I say: Prove me wrong.

The false claims I'm hearing now about my bill, S-2249, to create a worker-supported fund for paid family leave are the same ones I heard when I fought to raise the minimum wage two years ago. The clamor is fear-based, insulting to workers and divisive.

I am certain that passing a paid family-leave bill now in the Senate and the Assembly and sending it to the governor for his signature is the absolute right thing to do. To the bill's opponents, I say: Prove me wrong.

I'm encouraged by the surge of public support for my bill, but time is short. The majority Assembly Democrats will be discussing the bill in their caucus tomorrow. I'll be talking it up with my Senate colleagues all week.

You might have heard the radio pitches from the New Jersey Time to Care Coalition, a group of more than 60 labor, community, parent, child-advocacy, research, faith-based and academic organizations, pointing out that a paid family-leave program won't cause the sky to fall. Unfortunately, well-financed opponents of my bill, led by the Business and Industry Association, are promoting a family-last attitude that casts a blind eye toward the workplace benefits of peace of mind for workers who need to pay bills or take trips to reach dying parents.

If you believe opponents of paid family leave, it will be the death knell for business as we know it in New Jersey. Companies will flee across our borders to Pennsylvania, Delaware and New York. Small businesses will shut down. Women will never get hired again because they have the babies.

Well, guess what? All those charges are baloney and, together, they weigh a lot more than the 10-lb. loaf that was dropped off at the Business and Industry Association headquarters on West State Street last week by the New Jersey Time to Care Coalition. If people doubt me, I invite them to prove me wrong.

While the fear merchants want the bill's supporters to be consumed by answering their false charges, the pure and simple truth is that the proposal would enable workers to take up to 10 weeks a year to care for a sick family member or a newborn and receive two-thirds of their weekly pay, up to $502 from a fund supported entirely by average weekly worker contributions of about one dollar.

There's no hidden business tax, no secret income tax, no new financial burden on employers. Small businesses with fewer than 50 employees don't even have to save the job of a worker who chooses to take family leave. If anyone doubts any of my claims, I stand ready to be proven wrong.

The state and federal leave programs in place now are perfectly fine for all those blessed with a hid den pot of gold to pay bills during family crises. The paths of most families aren't paved with gold, however. If you doubt that fact, ask around – I'll bet your neighbors, your colleagues at work or the person behind you in the convenience store will all prove you wrong.

My approach to seeking support for paid family leave has been conciliatory. I've been willing to discuss reducing the amount of authorized time off to the limit of six weeks, as has been set in California, which adopted a similar program in 2003. But at some point, I realized that opponents weren't listening to any compromises. In fact, they weren't hearing a thing. Instead, they were content to abuse their authority as employers to instill the greatest fear in workers possible by claiming – wrongly – that if they embrace a paid family-leave program, they will destroy the source of their income. That willingness to instill fear is beyond wrong – it's insidious.

It can be noted that California hasn't crumbled into the Pacific Ocean since it adopted paid family leave. Businesses there haven't been forced to shut down because workers have abused the program.

That's what we should have for New Jersey workers, because behind most every worker there's some kind of family out there, whether it's made up of healthy kids in school or children with disabilities or parents with Alzheimer's disease.

In my professional life, as both a public official and as a member of the Iron Workers Local 399, I've found that families pretty much all have the same kinds of needs at different times. This paid family-leave program is hardly a cure-all, but it's a way to help families deal with unforeseen and in many cases, unaffordable, uncertainties.

Stephen M. Sweeney, a Democrat, represents the 3rd Legislative District in the New Jersey Senate. He was recently elected as the Senate majority leader for the legislative term that begins in January 2008.

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