Inside Jersey

New Jersey Law 2013

From sick leave to alimony, New Jersey residents face a number of new laws — but for many in the state, recovering from Superstorm Sandy is still an ongoing priority

The Star-Ledger / Inside Jersey — Sunday, September 1, 2013

BY JON WHITEN
SPECIAL TO NEWJERSEYNEWSROOM.COM

Hurricane Sandy is long over, with the beaches opening up and reconstruction under way in most places, but for many New Jersey residents impacted by the storm, problems are still piling up — legal problems, that is. In response, a cadre of pro bono attorneys has fanned out throughout the state this summer to provide legal advice to affected residents.

Cathy Keenan, director of Volunteer Lawyers for Justice, told nj.com that her volunteers have seen an upswing in storm survivors asking for legal assistance.

"People's legal issues right now are more acute than they were previously," Keenan said. "For months, people were focused on primary immediate needs — what's happening with their house, how are they going to survive through the storm, now they're having so much difficulty with paperwork, they have to make a decision about whether they repair their home, whether they demolish their home. Their legal issues are coming to a head more than previously."

The group runs a free legal help line (855-301-2525), along with walk-in legal clinics in Hoboken, Jersey City and Hazlet. Keenan hopes to open a location in Ocean County as well. The help line connects financially eligible clients, on a sliding scale based on family size and income, to pro bono attorneys, while the walk-in clinics provide on-the-spot legal advice.

The organization has a handful of full-time staff members to coordinate its work, but over 100 volunteer attorneys provide most of the counseling. Plans are to extend all walk-in clinics throughout the duration of the summer, and possibly further depending on demand.

Sick-Day Legislation Proposed

Under newly proposed legislation, New Jersey could join Connecticut and a handful of cities around the country in setting minimum paid sick-day standards for private-sector employers. The bill, which is already facing strong opposition from business groups, was introduced in May by Assemblywoman Pamela R. Lampitt, a Camden County Democrat.

New Jersey does not now require private employers to offer paid sick time, although many employers already do. Some private companies provide it only for full-time workers, and others offer it to part-timers as well.

According to the provisions of Lampitt's bill, workers would accrue up to one hour for every 30 hours worked, up to 72 hours, or nine full days, in a calendar year for businesses with more than 11 employees, and up to 40 hours, or five full days, in a calendar year for smaller businesses. Workers would begin to accrue the time immediately, but couldn't take any time until after they had worked for 90 days.

According to a 2011 study by the Institute for Women's Policy Research in Washington, D.C, a think tank that focuses on women's issues, more than 1.2 million New Jersey workers, or 38 percent of the state's private-sector work force, get no paid sick days.

"Every day, New Jersey's working families are faced with difficult choices," said Phyllis Salowe-Kaye, executive director of NJ Citizen Action and co-chair of the New Jersey Time to Care Coalition, a diverse group of over 80 organizations that came together in support of policies like earned sick days. "Providing earned sick days would ensure that no one has to choose between a paycheck and caring for their own health or that of a sick family member."

Alimony Laws

Activists are pushing legislation that would dramatically revise New Jersey alimony laws. The proposal, which has bipartisan support, would end the concept of permanent alimony and set new limits on the size and duration of alimony awards. The measure also would permit former spouses to return to court to seek revision of alimony orders entered before any change was enacted. The measure would limit the duration of alimony to half the length of a marriage that lasted up to five years, and would gradually increase that time to 16 years for marriages of up to 20 years. Judges would have the option of ordering alimony for an "indefinite length of time" for marriages that lasted longer.

Similarly, alimony payments would be limited to no more than 35 percent of the income of a spouse, and payments would automatically come to an end when payers reached full retirement age. The bill also provides that alimony payments would cease if a payer could show that an ex-spouse was living with someone else. Judges would be permitted to deviate from the limits if it was "in the interests of justice."

Driving the legislation are advocacy groups such as New Jersey Alimony Reform, comprising former spouses who say they have been unfairly saddled with steep alimony payments they can't afford. They contend that because of New Jersey courts' historic presumption in favor of permanent alimony for spouses married a decade or more, they can't escape those payments, even when they suffer a major loss of income.

The New Jersey State Bar Association opposes the bill, arguing that by rigidly prescribing alimony terms, it would take away the ability of judges to respond to the unique patterns that emerge in divorces.

State Passes Overdose Bill

Rock star Jon Bon Jovi recently joined Gov. Chris Christie to show his support for the signing of a new statewide law that encourages people to report drug overdoses without fear of being arrested. In a highly publicized incident last November, Bon Jovi's daughter Stephanie reportedly overdosed on heroin in November 2012 in her upstate New York dorm. Misdemeanor charges of possession of a controlled substance or the use of drug paraphernalia were later dropped because New York has a similar protection law.

"Leaders of this state want them to save a life first, not worry about anything else thereafter," Gov. Christie said at the signing."The Overdose Protection Act applies to those who seek medical help for themselves or someone else experiencing a drug overdose. The bill was passed 24-1 in the New Jersey Senate in May.

Lautenberg's Legacy

Following the death of longtime New Jersey Sen. Frank Lautenberg in early June, Gov. Chris Christie named New Jersey attorney general Jeffrey Chiesa to fill the seat in the U.S. Senate and also made the controversial decision to hold two special elections — an August 13 primary and an October 16 election — at a cost of almost $25 million. Chiesa has announced that he will not run in that election.

Christie faced conflicting state laws in deciding when to have the election. He could have waited until November 2014, or possibly this November. But Christie said it was worth the expense to the state to hold a special election earlier. "The citizens of New Jersey need to have an elected representative to the United States Senate and have it as soon as possible," he said.

With the special election set, Christie will not have his appointee of choice in the Senate for a full 18-month span. However, the governor ensured that a high-profile Democratic Senate candidate would not be running at the top of the ticket this November, when he and other Republicans are running in the main general election. Such a candidate on the ballot could help attract support to other Democrats running for lower-level office.

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