Corzine Pushes Paid Family Leave

NJBIZ — Monday, June 25, 2007

By Scott Goldstein

STATEHOUSE — Gov. Jon Corzine has given a glowing endorsement to legislation that would make New Jersey the third state to offer paid leave to public- and private-sector employees who need to care for seriously ill family members, newborns or newly adopted babies.

Proponents of business have long opposed the idea, saying it would create a hardship for employers who lose workers for extended periods. But Corzine this month told members of the AFL-CIO that he expects to sign a family-leave bill into law by the end of the year.

"This is one issue I'm going to fight for," Corzine told the union's convention in Atlantic City. "We will get it passed and I will make a wager--not my life's wealth--but a wager that we will get it done by the end of the year." The pledge was well-received by the more than 1 million-member union.

In Trenton, a wide range of groups have thrown their support behind family-leave legislation (S-2249) that would give workers 10 weeks of leave at two-thirds pay, up to a ceiling of $488 per week. The bill would cover all companies, including those with 50 or fewer employees that are exempt from current state law requiring business to provide up to 12 weeks a year of unpaid family leave.

Jon Shure, president of New Jersey Policy Perspective, which supports the bill, notes that the governor has supported paid family leave since he was a U.S. senator and says his recent remarks reverberated in Trenton. "It was clearly the strongest statement he has made to date on the topic," says Shure. "It doesn't guarantee us 41 votes in the Assembly and 21 votes in the Senate, but it's very encouraging."

The bill already has considerable support in the Legislature, with seven sponsors in the Senate and 17 sponsors in the Assembly. It has moved through two Senate committees, one of which amended it to reduce the amount of paid leave from 12 weeks to 10. No date has been set for a full Senate vote and the legislation has yet to get an Assembly-committee hearing.

Business lobbyists, who oppose mandated family-leave legislation, point out that Corzine did not mention S-2249 by name when he pledged to sign a family-leave bill.

"The governor in the past has indicated that he supported the concept of paid family leave," says Philip Kirschner, president of the New Jersey Business & Industry Association. However, there may be a feeling that the legislation's call for 10 weeks of leave is too broad, he says.

California offers six weeks of leave at 55 percent of the worker's pay with a cap of $840 per week. Washington state's recently adopted program will offer five weeks of leave with pay of no more than $250 per week.

The New Jersey bill "would be by far the most onerous in the country," says Kirschner. "We think this is a bad idea. If you want to grow the economy, you don't enact a program that makes you stick out like a sore thumb. It sends a terrible message to the business community, both to businesses here and those we are trying to attract from outside the state."

But Eileen Appelbaum, director of the Center for Women and Work at Rutgers University, says the legislation would help develop better workers with better morale. "We do research here that clearly indicates that people need to have partial wage replacement when they leave," says Applebaum. "It does make a difference in allowing people to be responsible family members and responsible employees."

Sponsors of S-2249 say there are stipulations in the bill that prevent workers from abusing paid leave, such as requiring them to first exhaust up to two weeks of available vacation or sick leave. And the bill does not require companies to reserve jobs for those who take paid leave.

The leave would be funded by employees who pay additional money into the existing state Temporary Disability Insurance fund through increased payroll deductions. "This is not a new tax on businesses," says Sen. Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester), a co-sponsor of the bill and a union representative for Ironworkers Union Local 339. "We made it clear in the legislation that employers won't pay a dime."

Workers making the $7.15 minimum wage would pay an additional 28 cents a week under the bill, while those making $94,000 would pay an extra $1.80 per week. According to the measure, the average worker would pay less than a dollar more per week.

"Let's not forget that we are talking about protecting families who are just trying to make ends meet and to spend the time they need to with those who rely on them," says Sen. Barbara Buono (D-Middlesex), a co-sponsor of the bill. "We should not be forced to sacrifice either the care or the financial security our loved ones need."

Corzine Hot and Cold On Plant-Closing Bill

The Corzine administration is giving a lukewarm response to a bill that would make New Jersey the first state to require companies to give workers 90 days notice – 30 days more than required by federal law – before shutting a plant or making mass layoffs.

The bill (S-472) received final legislative approval by the Assembly June 11 and now sits on the governor's desk.

Corzine spokesman Brendan Gilfillan says the government is reluctant to extend the 60-day notification period mandated under federal law, but likes an aspect of the bill that creates harsher penalties for companies that fail to meet the deadline. "Generally speaking, we believe the requirements need to have teeth, but we have concerns about extending the notification period," Gilfillan says.

The bill on Corzine's desk would require companies with 100 or more employees to give workers 90 days notice when 50 full- or part-time workers are to be laid off. The section the governor likes would require companies that don't provide the required notice to give laid-off employees a week's worth of severance pay for every year they were employed, on top of any other severance they may be owed. The penalty under federal law is an extra day's wage to employees for every day they are laid off before the 60-day warning.

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