Paid Family Leave Proposal Moves Forward

NJ.com — Monday, February 5, 2007

The Associated Press

TRENTON, N.J. (AP) — Nancy Kergides spends up to three weeks several times a year at the hospital tending to a son with cystic fibrosis and diabetes.

"I'm a single parent," the Elk Township woman said Monday. "He's basically my life and I'm the only one who can care for him. His life is everything to me."

As a hairdresser, Kergides not only loses money but also clients when she misses work for long periods to care for her 19-year-old son.

"I have a minimal amount of savings, and it's getting lower and lower," Kergides said.

So Kergides was among those pleased Monday that New Jersey moved closer to becoming the nation's second state to offer paid leave for family members who need time off from work to care for a sick family member or a newborn child.

The Senate Labor Committee pushed forward a plan to pay people for up to 12 weeks off, the first step in what could be a long journey toward becoming law.

California, the only other state with a paid family leave program, lets workers to take up to six weeks.

The plan is opposed by businesses.

"It is simply unrealistic to expect employers, especially small employers, to do without employees for almost three months," said Philip Kirschner, New Jersey Business & Industry Association president.

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

But under the bill pushed by Sen. Stephen Sweeney, D-Gloucester, workers who take leave would be paid through the state's temporary disability insurance fund. That fund gives people who miss time from work because of illness or injury two-thirds of weekly wages, up to $488 per week. People who take paid family leave would receive the same benefit.

"This legislation would allow New Jersey to remain in the forefront of providing essential benefits to our hard-working residents," Sweeney said.

The leave would be funded by a 0.1 percent charge against a worker's weekly wages. Legislative officials estimate that would cost most workers about $1 per week. Most New Jersey workers pay $129 per year in temporary disability insurance through their paychecks.

An October poll by the Eagleton Center for Public Interest Polling at Rutgers University found 78 percent of residents supported the paid family leave proposal, with 16 percent opposed it.

"New Jerseyans are more than ready to support this small expense for the security of knowing they have some protection against a family crisis, or in the case of a birth of adoption, a family blessing," said Phyllis Salowe-Kaye of New Jersey Citizen Action, which is part of a coalition of organized labor and groups that advocate for women, minorities, children and the poor that support the bill.

But Joseph D. Kelly, president of the Atlantic City Regional Mainland Chamber of Commerce, said employers and employees should be left to work together to solve such problems.

"Government intervention and mandates create an unbalanced environment, reduce flexibility, add to the cost of doing business and will be bad in the long run for all involved," he said.

J. Kelly Conklin, president of Foley-Waite Associates, an architectural woodworking firm in Bloomfield, said otherwise.

"I believe a worker distracted by a pressing family emergency is not likely to do his or her best work," she said. "I'd rather they stay home, with compensation."

Gov. Jon S. Corzine said he supports the idea, but is focused on cutting the nation's highest property taxes.

"I haven't studied the bill," Corzine said. "Conceptually, I'm in favor of paid family leave, but I don't think this is the priority that we ought to be focusing on. We ought to bring conclusion to the property tax debate."

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