Assembly Lawmakers Finally Advance Plan For Paid Work Leave

Newsday — 1:33 PM EST, Thursday, February 28, 2008

Associated Press Writer

TRENTON, N.J. — A Democratic-led effort to make New Jersey the third state to let workers take paid leave from work to care for a sick relative or newborn child received a boost Thursday, much to the displeasure of businesses and Republicans.

The Assembly Labor Committee voted 6-2 to approve legislation giving workers six weeks paid leave, marking the first time Assembly lawmakers advanced the paid leave measure.

Legislators have tried to get the measure into law for years, but this proposal hadn't received Assembly consideration amid worry paid leave could hurt businesses.

The bill is now set for a Monday Senate vote and further Assembly consideration. Democrats control the Assembly and the Senate.

Robert Serrano, of Cumberland County, recalled how he spent months traveling to a Philadelphia hospital to visit his wife as she was treated for leukemia. He worked nights as a grocery clerk and got by, he said, on two-hour naps. Though he wanted to spend more time with his wife, he said he had to continue working to maintain health insurance.

"It just got so overwhelming sometimes," Serrano said.

His wife died in February 2006, and Serrano said he wished he could have taken paid leave from his job to spend more time with her.

"This legislation is about giving families time to bond," said Senate Majority Leader Stephen Sweeney, D-Gloucester. "It's about giving them time to care for their loved ones."

But the New Jersey Business & Industry Association noted how Thursday's hearing came as employment data released this week showed the state added just 3,700 jobs last year – the worst since 2003 – and lost 9,200 private-sector jobs in January, the worst month in five years.

"This is the wrong bill at the wrong time," NJBIA President Philip Kirschner said.

California allows workers to take up to six weeks paid leave under a 2004 law, while Washington will allow workers to take five weeks paid leave as of October 2009.

Since 1993, federal law has allowed workers in businesses with at least 50 employees to take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave.

The New Jersey leave would be paid through a payroll deduction that legislative officials estimate would cost workers about $33 per year. Workers who take leave would get two-thirds of their salary, up to $502 per week.

"For $33 a year, this is the best social insurance program that money could buy," said Charles Wowkanech, president of the New Jersey State AFL-CIO, which is among the labor unions backing the plan.

But Assemblyman Michael Doherty, R-Warren, said the $33 per year cost was simply a new tax.

"We will lose more jobs and the very people this bill purports to help will, in reality, be harmed by its cascading negative effects," said Assemblyman Jay Webber, R-Morris.

State Labor Commissioner David Socolow, who along with Gov. Jon S. Corzine backs the proposal, has estimated 38,000 New Jersey workers annually would take paid leave. New Jersey has 4.1 million workers.

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