Asbury Park Press

Paid To Stay Home

The debate over paid family leave is heating up. Labor advocates say it would give workers who care for family members needed relief. Industry leaders say it would add another burden to the state's business climate.

Asbury Park Press — Monday, February 12, 2007

BY MICHAEL L. DIAMOND
BUSINESS WRITER

As the paid family leave debate flared up last week in Trenton, Patrick Mangini of Marlboro could have been forgiven if he had mixed emotions.

The proposed legislation no doubt would disrupt the operations of his Manalapan business, Bagel Time. But as the father of three, he is deeply sympathetic with the frenetic life of working parents.

In the end, he said, his business would simply have to take the hit. "To have more time off with the child would be excellent," said Mangini, 39. Since the leave would be partially paid, "there would be less financial pressure, which then makes the relationship stronger and a better experience for the children."

A proposal to give New Jersey workers up to 12 weeks of paid leave to care for a family member is making progress in the state Legislature. The Senate Labor Committee gave its approval last week.

The bill comes as a recently released study shows the United States trails other countries in providing job and income security for working parents. But it also has sparked opposition from business groups that say they cannot absorb another mandate in a state already considered unfriendly to them. One recent study by Economy.com found New Jersey has the third-highest cost of doing business nationwide.

"We always believe the employer-employee relationship needs to be sacrosanct, and legislative interference doesn't help," said Jim Leonard, vice president of government relations for the New Jersey Chamber of Commerce.

Companies offer a wide range of benefits for paid time off, but paid family leave is rare; only about 12 percent of companies offer paid maternity or paternity leave, according to a survey by the Society of Human Resource Management, an Alexandria, Va.-based trade group.

Most employees who want to take off work to care for a family member do so at a financial cost.

The federal Family and Medical Leave Act gives workers up to 12 weeks a year. The state Family Leave Act gives workers up to 12 weeks every two years. But both apply only to employees at companies with 50 or more workers, and in both cases, the leave is unpaid.

New Jersey also allows women who leave work for the birth of a child to collect two-thirds of their average weekly salary up to $502 this year, typically for about 10 weeks. The money comes from the state's temporary disability insurance fund. All employees are covered, but their jobs are not protected.

Not enough

Labor advocates say that's not enough. Seventy percent of households nationwide either have both parents working or are headed by a single working parent, leaving many people on their own to care for a sick child or parent, said Eileen Applebaum, director of the Center for Women and Work at Rutgers University.

"It would be hard to support your family" on the family-leave income, Applebaum said. "But it can make the difference between losing your house and not losing your house, putting food on the table and not putting food on the table."

New Jersey's paid family leave act is modeled after a law in California that passed in 2004. Employees would be paid not by their employer, but by the state's temporary disability fund.

The act wouldn't protect their jobs, although employees who work for a company with 50 or more workers already have job protection through the federal Family and Medical Leave Act. That would leave workers at small businesses at risk of losing their job if they take a leave of absence.

But employees could be paid two-thirds of their salary up to $502 a week for up to 12 weeks to care for newborn children, newly adopted children or sick family members.

To pay for it, employees would pay an extra 45 cents to $2.75 a week – depending on their income – into the state's temporary disability insurance fund. It would amount to about $1 more a week for the average New Jersey worker, advocates said.

Parents and business owners had a mixed response.

Andy Forminio, 34, of Marlboro, is a stock broker with two children. He said his company gives him two weeks of paid paternity leave — an invaluable benefit that allows him to help his wife and spend time with his newborn daughter without financial concern.

He wasn't sure whether the state should mandate it. "It's probably better for the company to do something (on its own)," Forminio said. "I don't know if it's best to have a state law."

Robert J. Everett Jr., owns Bayville Auto Care, an auto-repair shop with eight employees. He initially feared he would have to foot the bill for workers on leave and hold their jobs for them for three months. When told that wasn't the case, he thought twice.

"I've got mixed emotions on this. Initially, it sounded like a burden, but there could be some merit," he said, before adding, "I'm always leery of, "We're from the government. We're here to help.' "

Business groups are more decidely skeptical. Leonard, for example, told the Senate Labor Committee the bill would raise taxes for workers who already have trouble staying afloat in New Jersey, where the cost of living is high. And employers would face extra overtime and training costs.

"It's a tough thing," Laurie Ehlbeck, director of the National Federation of Independent Business in New Jersey, said in an interview. "Small employers have a personal relationship with employees. They're not saying they don't think someone shouldn't be able to tend to personal matters. . . . Those decisions should be left to the employer and employee to work out on their own."

Yet paid family leave proponents said working parents have no protection when the issue is left to the private sector.

Rare privilege

New Jersey's paid maternity leave is already rare in this country. A recent Harvard University and McGill University study of 173 countries found the United States was one of just five countries that don't provide paid maternity leave. The others are Lesotho, Liberia, Swaziland and Papua New Guinea.

Taking note of the study, state Sen. Stephen Sweeney, D-Gloucester, the bill's sponsor, said the timing was right to expand the concept of family leave. He said he addressed industry's concerns. He didn't require them to pay for it. And he didn't require small business owners hold jobs open.

The only difference: Workers who take leave to care for family members have a chance to get paid, he said.

The bill might win support from Gov. Corzine. "In principle, he supports and has supported giving workers more flexibility to balance work responsibility with family responsibilities," Corzine spokesman Brendan Gilfillan said. "He will be working with Sen. Sweeney and all other interested parties on the details of this bill."

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