NJBIZ

A Killer "Compromise"

NJBIZ — Monday, October 29, 2007

By Jon Shure

It's a compromise that at first sounds like a great idea. To get support in the Legislature for New Jersey to adopt paid family leave, let's exempt companies with fewer than 50 employees.

Then you think it over and realize this isn't a compromise but a death sentence.

The family leave insurance proposal would allow up to 12 weeks off per 12 months for working men and women to care for a sick child, spouse or parent or who have a newborn or newly adopted child. It's simply recognition of how hard it is in the modern economy for people to balance the obligations of work and family.

The business lobby doesn't see it that way, predicting destruction of the business climate by overburdening employers-just as they said about Social Security, unemployment insurance, minimum wage and the 40-hour week. In this fight against reality, business groups are losing traction. So they're switching gears. Now they stump for the under-50-employee exemption, saying small businesses need flexibility. They deride a "one-size-fits-all" mandate.

But that phrase is as hollow as it is clever. If you mean every worker would have the right to take care of his or her family, well then, yes, it's one-size-fits-all. But is there something wrong with that? Indeed, we in the NJ Time to Care coalition for family leave insurance have found no shortage of small business owners favoring the program. They want their workers to get time off for emergencies and they wish they could pay them but they can't afford it. They know small businesses themselves are like families, where people look out for each other.

What if-for the sake of argument-businesses under 50 people were exempted? For one thing, working people who need family leave insurance the most wouldn't have it. Today, the relatively higher paid employees of large companies are mostly likely to have the benefit. It would hurt small businesses too: they'd have a tougher time competing against big companies for workers.

How would you run such a program? Exemption supporters cite current federal family leave policy, which does exempt companies under 50 workers. But this is key: it's unpaid leave. Under a paid leave program would you tell some workers they have to pay into a system they can't use because their employer is too small? Or would you only have people working at places with over 50 workers pay in? Can you imagine trying to run Social Security or Unemployment Insurance that way? What happens when an employer slips from 51 employees to 49?

We're talking administrative nightmare, maybe not even constitutional – and incredibly unfair.

Anti-leave business groups ignore the huge compromises family leave advocates already made: only workers pay into the system-employers pay nothing; and workers get no new job protection – you don't have to hold open their jobs.

Everything suggests the business lobby knows how unworkable an exemption would be. It's a deal-breaker disguised as common sense – thinly disguised at that.

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