Herald News

New Jersey Would Be Second In Nation For Paid Family Leave

Herald News / NorthJersey.com — Tuesday, February 6, 2007

By HUGH R. MORLEY
STAFF WRITER

A bill that would give all New Jersey workers up to 12 weeks of paid family leave moved ahead Monday despite strong protests from businesses.

The Democrat-controlled Senate Labor Committee voted 3-1 along party lines to send the bill to the full Senate after more than two hours of sometimes heated testimony in which business leaders said it would harm small companies and hurt New Jer- sey's competitive edge.

"It's another mandate, and it further exacerbates the anti-business climate" of the state, said Joseph P. Teti, CEO of Triangle Art, a Princeton-based printer and one of several businessmen who spoke out against the legislation.

But some businesses backed the bill, which also has the support of a coalition of more than 60 unions and advocates for children, minorities and women.

The bill would allow workers time off to care for newborns, sick family members or adopted children, and would pay them up to two-thirds of their salary, to a maximum of $488 a week, through a statewide payroll deduction.

Sheryl Magaziner, owner of a Highland Park gift shop with four employees, said the legislation is good for small companies like hers. She said most businesses would give workers time off anyway to care for a loved one, and the law would provide a way to make sure employees got paid during their absence.

"It provides a critically needed insurance that I can't provide myself," she said. Supporters say the average worker would pay less than $1 a week into the fund.

Existing federal and state legislation requires that employers give workers 12 weeks of family leave, but does not require that they be paid and applies only to businesses with more than 50 employees. California, the only state with a paid family leave program, lets workers to take up to six weeks.

Several bill supporters, including sponsor Sen. Stephen M. Sweeney, D-Gloucester, cited a study released last week by Harvard and McGill universities that showed most developed countries provide employees with paid maternal leave.

Researchers looked at 173 countries, and found the U.S. was one of five that didn't provide the leave; the others were developing nations.

"We can no longer ignore the needs of families," said Sen. Barbara Buono, D-Middlesex. A survey by Rutgers University in November found 78 percent of those polled supported paid family leave.

Sweeney said his legislation merely expands the state's existing family leave law so "employees don't have to make the choice between caring for a sick family member and their job."

He said it places no more burden on employers than the existing law, because they don't pay the employee who is on leave.

In fact, he said after the hearing, employers with 50 or fewer could refuse to rehire an employee who is out on leave, and simply hire a permanent replacement.

Other speakers said the law is needed to reflect the modern reality that most parents now work.

Eileen Applebaum, a professor at Rutgers University's Center for Women and Work said that 70 percent of New Jersey families are now headed by dual-earning couples or a single parent – none of whom can afford to take time off without pay.

She said the impact on New Jersey businesses would likely not be widespread. She said that after California passed a law in 2004 that gave workers six weeks of paid leave, just 1.3 percent of eligible workers took it.

Sweeney said that if the bill became law he believed that only 4,000 more people would take paid family leave each year than take unpaid leave at present.

But Phil Kirschner, president of the New Jersey Business and Industry Association, said the figure would likely be far higher, perhaps in the tens of thousands.

He said most businesses find a way to accommodate a worker's need for time off -- perhaps through allowing them to work at home, or do special shifts or rearranging work schedules. And a state paid leave mandate merely restricts their flexibility in dealing with the problem, he said.

Still, he and others said, the absence of an employee hurts the company, often forcing it to hire temporary help.

Michael Yates, president of a Hampton-based human resources consulting company, said it's not true that the bill would cost employers nothing.

"Small businesses can and do fail because of this," he said. "There is a cost, both in dollars and in disruption. The cost in dollars is the cost of a temporary worker for which the company pays a premium, the training of a replacement worker and the overtime paid to remaining workers who help fill in for that absent employee."

The cost in disruption includes the cost of missed deadlines, disappointed customers, lost business and a damaged reputation due to working short-staffed or with temporary employees who are unfamiliar with the job, he said.

Governor 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."

This article contains material from The Associated Press.

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Key elements of the legislation

What's next: The bill goes to full Senate for a vote. It would still face Assembly review.

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