Family Leave Bill Receives Panel's OK

CourierPostOnline — Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Gannett State Bureau

New Jersey will soon be the third state to approve a proposal to pay workers who take leave to care for an ill, newly born or newly adopted family member after a close vote in the Senate Monday.

The measure, which has faced several obstacles, has now received all needed approvals from the Legislature and heads to Gov. Jon S. Corzine, who supports it.

The program, known as paid family leave, would allow workers to be paid two-thirds their wages, up to $524 a week, for six weeks when using the 12 weeks of unpaid leave currently allowed by state and federal law. The Senate passed it narrowly, 21-15, with one fewer vote than when the Senate first approved it in March.

The bill needed to be reapproved Monday because the Assembly amended the measure to ensure that businesses with fewer than 50 employees, which don't have to allow workers who take leave to return to their jobs, can't be sued.

Advocates have been pitching the proposal as a compassionate insurance program being funded by a payroll deduction of about 64 cents per week, or $33 per year, so workers, especially poorer ones, don't have to decide between work and caring for family.

Opponents, largely organized business lobbies, have said the measure will make New Jersey a more difficult place to conduct business and say the state is underestimating how many people will use the leave and what it will cost.

"The arguments were empty arguments that had no backing," said Senate Majority Leader Stephen M. Sweeney, D-Gloucester, the most prominent sponsor. "Their argument wasn't true, and the truth won out today."

The only senator to vote differently Monday than on March 3 was Sen. Nia Gill, D-Essex, who voted for it the first time but said the amendment to protect small business stripped people's rights to equal protection.

"The concept may be good, but the execution in this amendment, I think as a legal proposition, is repugnant to our common law and constitutional rights," Gill said.

The only other Democrats who didn't support the measure were Sen. Ronald Rice, D-Essex, who didn't cast a vote, and Sen. Shirley Turner, D-Mercer, who voted no.

Turner's objections centered on the cost to taxpayers, including those who work for small businesses who would be forced to pay into the fund without being allowed to collect benefits.

"This is, in effect, taxation without participation," Turner said.

Other than Sen. Bill Baroni Jr., R-Mercer, all Republicans opposed it, citing the worsening economy, the state's reputation of being unfriendly to business and rising costs to taxpayers.

"This will be one of the final nails in the coffin of small businesses in New Jersey," Sen. Christopher "Kip" Bateman, R-Somerset, said.

Sweeney dismissed the "it's not the right time" argument.

"Social Security and unemployment were done during the Great Depression," Sweeney said. "Worker benefit bills have always happened at these times, when times are tough."

California is the only state with an operating paid family leave program. Washington passed a leave law last year.

Once Corzine signs the bill, New Jersey will start deducting the tax in January and start paying out benefits in July 2009.

Copyright 2008 Courier-Post

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