Senate Passes Family Leave Bill

NJBIZ — Friday, May 2, 2008

By Scott Goldstein

Calling it a "legacy moment" and a "moral necessity," Gov. Jon S. Corzine today signed into law a bill that will give government and private-sector workers six weeks of paid leave to care for newborns or seriously ill immediate family members.

The noontime bill-signing ceremony at the statehouse culminates hard-fought efforts dating back a dozen years to adopt a paid family leave policy in New Jersey.

"Twelve years," Corzine exclaimed as hundreds of supporters from pro-family and pro-workers groups cheered.

"This family-leave insurance bill is personally significant to me," the governor said. "When I was in the hospital after my accident last spring, it was the strong support from my family that kept me going. I was fortunate my family members had the flexibility to be there for me, day-in and day-out. But not everyone has that luxury."

New Jersey will become the second state, after California, to offer workers six weeks of paid leave. Washington state recently adopted a more modest program that offers five weeks, but a definitive start date has not been set.

Supporters of the bill say the new law will help workers balance their work and family life. Business lobbyists and other critics argue that employers – especially small ones like doctors' offices and car repair shops – cannot afford to lose key workers for up to six weeks at a time. The critics say that becoming the first state in the region to mandate paid leave would further damage the state's image as a place to do business.

"We are astonished that the governor and the Legislature would impose a paid leave mandate on businesses that are already struggling to survive a recession," said Philip Kirschner, president of the New Jersey Business & Industry Association.

Corzine said employers' concerns were considered. The bill was modified to reduce the leave to six weeks from the original 12 weeks, and the pay is capped at $524 week, "not exactly a king's ransom," Corzine said. He stressed that the program will be paid for by workers, not employers.

The bill's primary sponsors both have jobs as labor union leaders – Sen. Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester) and Assemblyman Nelson Albano (D-Cumberland). "This is not a labor bill," Sweeney said today. "We fought for workers who are not organized. This bill says we care about our workers. We truly care about our workers." Albano added: "There are a lot of workers who don't have a voice. We are their voice."

Under the law, workers will get two-thirds of their regular pay, up to $524 per week. Employees could collect the money for up to six weeks and employers would have the option of requiring the workers to first take two weeks of fully paid vacation or sick leave.

The program would be funded by workers, who would pay about 75 cents a week more into the existing state Temporary Disability Insurance fund through payroll deductions. That translates into about $35 per year.

State and federal law now entitles workers to 12 weeks of family leave, but it is unpaid and employers with fewer than 50 employees are exempt. While the new paid family leave bill covers all employers, those with fewer than 50 employees are not required to hold open jobs for workers on paid leave.

Payroll deductions would start on Jan. 1, 2009, with workers able to take paid leave starting July 1, 2009, according to the bill. The Department of Labor estimates that approximately 38,000 individuals, or about 1 percent of New Jersey's work force, will collect benefits annually, but business lobbyists have argued it will be much higher.

The bill is modeled after a three-year-old California law that offers six weeks of paid leave at 55 percent of the worker's pay, with a cap of $840 per week. New York and Massachusetts are also considering bills mandating some version of paid family leave.

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