The New York Times

New Jersey Senate Votes For Leave To Care For Kin

The New York Times — Tuesday, March 4, 2008


TRENTON — After an unusually emotional debate bursting with political indignation and personal anguish, the State Senate narrowly approved legislation Monday that would make New Jersey the third state in the nation to give employees the right to take paid leave to care for a newborn or a sick relative.

The measure would be financed by employee payroll deductions that would cost every worker in New Jersey a maximum of 64 cents a week, or $33 a year. Those taking the leave would be eligible for two-thirds of their salary, up to a maximum of $524 a week, for six weeks. The benefit falls short of the $917 a week that California offers but is more than double what Washington State will offer starting next year.

The bill now goes to the Assembly, which is expected to approve it on March 13. Gov. Jon S. Corzine, who has said he will sign the measure, said Monday that it was "an important step in the right direction for working families in New Jersey." If the bill becomes law, it will take effect on Jan. 1, 2009.

The fate of the measure, which hung in the balance during the 75-minute debate as 13 of the 80 senators took the floor, never seemed more in doubt than when Paul A. Sarlo, a Democrat from Bergen County, declared, "The timing is just wrong."

But when the voting began, Mr. Sarlo and another Democrat who had criticized the timing of the bill, Senator Nia H. Gill from Essex County, joined their colleagues as well as the one Republican who supported the measure, Senator Bill Baroni from Mercer County, in approving it 22 to 16.

The vote, the first of the new Legislature, had the broad support of powerful unions, which took up the issue 12 years ago. That support was evident in the dozens of people wearing "Family Leave Now" stickers milling around the State House.

But to critics like Senator Kevin J. O'Toole, a Republican from Cedar Grove, the timing was ill-advised and the cost too great.

"We have the heart for it," Mr. O'Toole said. "We don't have the wallet for it."

Less than a week ago, Mr. Corzine unveiled a $33 billion budget that would cut spending by $2.7 billion, and days later economic data showed that New Jersey had lost 9,500 jobs in January, the most of any state.

But to supporters, like the Senate majority leader, Stephen M. Sweeney of Gloucester County, the measure was a humane gesture. When his daughter, who weighed two pounds at birth, required neonatal care for 75 days, he said, he was fortunate to be able take time off, adding that most people were not as fortunate.

"I can't imagine having to choose between spending time with my daughter, who was clinging to life, and going to work to be able to put food on the table for my wife and then 4-year-old son," Mr. Sweeney said.

Technically speaking, the bill expands the state's temporary disability insurance program. According to an analysis from the nonpartisan Office of Legislative Services, about 38,000 workers are expected to take advantage of the law each year, at a cost to employees of $98 million in the first full year. The bill says companies with more than 50 employees must give the workers their jobs back when they return, but makes no such provision for workers at smaller companies.

In New York, similar legislation offering paid family leave for 12 weeks, but for only $170 a week, has stalled.

An earlier version of the New Jersey paid family-leave bill appeared close to passage in the Republican-led Legislature in 2001, but business advocates derailed the plan by arguing that companies would suffer hardships and exorbitant expenses through hiring temporary workers.

Last year, Mr. Sweeney and other sponsors proposed a new bill, offering 10 weeks of paid family leave. That measure never made it out of the lame-duck session after intense lobbying, coupled with criticism from legislators about the timing of such a measure, given the state's fiscal woes.

This time, Mr. Sweeney said significant compromises were made, including reducing the leave to six weeks.

As Monday's vote approached, discussions of the issue became quite heated. After Mr. Corzine's budget address last week, Senator Ronald L. Rice, a Democrat from Newark, got into an argument in the hallways of the State House with Charles Wowkanech, president of the New Jersey A.F.L.-C.I.O.

On Monday, Mr. Rice delivered an impassioned speech saying that while he loved his friends in organized labor, he was concerned about how the measure would affect small businesses in his district. "I'm not willing to roll the dice," he said, before abstaining.

And Mr. Wowkanech? He was all smiles. "We've worked on this for so long," he said. "I almost had tears in my eyes."

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