Today's Sunbeam

Sweeney Confident Over Paid Leave Bill

Today's Sunbeam — Sunday, December 30, 2007

By Trish G. Graber

TRENTON — While the proposal appears stalled, state Sen. Stephen Sweeney said delaying a vote on his controversial paid family leave legislation could actually prove beneficial.

"It gives me an opportunity to go back to leadership and the governor's office, and see if I can't negotiate more," said Sweeney, D-3 of West Deptford.

Sweeney began making concessions on the bill with a focus on getting the measure passed by the end of the legislative session.

First, he cut back the number of paid weeks off the proposal would provide workers, from 12 to 10. He then allowed an exemption for small businesses, giving those with 50 or less employees the ability to let workers go after they take the leave.

In recent weeks, legislators began discussing scaling back the number of paid weeks off allowed under the proposal even further, to six.

And as the Jan. 8 deadline for the Legislature to pass proposal neared and opposition to the paid leave plan from the business community mounted, those and additional changes were all on the table.

But that was when Sweeney was up against a clock.

Now, Sweeney, the Senate Majority Leader-elect, says rolling the proposal into the next session may not be such a bad idea. It will provide more time to negotiate provisions in the measure, including the number of weeks allowed off under the bill.

"My goal was to get a paid family leave bill done," Sweeney said. "It's going to get done."

The bill is backed by Gov. Jon S. Corzine.

Legislative leaders, while they have said the measure needs work, have also indicated support for some form of paid family leave.

Assembly Speaker Joseph Roberts Jr. has said it's a not a question of if, but when paid leave will come to New Jersey.

As it stands, the plan would allow workers up to 10 weeks of paid time off to care for a sick family member, a newborn or a newly-adopted child. It would be funded solely by employees through a $1 weekly surcharge, who would then be eligible for two-thirds of their pay a maximum of $502 a week if they took leave.

Passage of the measure would make New Jersey the third state to approve paid time off for workers.

California currently allows six weeks of paid leave; Washington state passed a bill to allow five weeks off paid but has yet to implement the program.

The federal government offers unpaid leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) to employees of businesses with at least 50 workers.

In New Jersey, opposition from the business community has hampered the bill's passage.

New Jersey Business and Industry Association President Phil Kirshner holds that the measure would impede businesses' ability to thrive in a state with an already tough business climate.

"Pennsylvania and New York are salivating that New Jersey passes this mandate that (they) don't have," Kirshner said.

Others have said it would open the door to abuse by employees and harm businesses forced to replace employees on leave with higher-paid temporary workers.

But Kirshner conceded: "This is an issue that we all know is not going to go away."

Sweeney said that he hopes to have the measure passed in both houses before legislators break for next year's budget recess on March 13.

"I feel really good about where we're at," Sweeney said. "I think that in the early parts of next year, you're going to see the governor sign a paid family leave bill."

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