Philadelphia Inquirer

Paid Family-Leave Program Wins Approval In New Jersey Senate

The Philadelphia Inquirer — Tuesday, March 4, 2008

By Adrienne Lu
Inquirer Trenton Bureau

New Jersey would become the third state in the nation to offer paid family leave, under a bill narrowly approved yesterday by the state Senate.

Proponents of the bill, which offers workers up to six weeks' leave to care for sick family members and newborn or adopted children, have fought for the provision for more than a decade. During the last legislative session, a paid family-leave bill that would have offered up to 10 weeks of leave failed to clear the legislature.

Most businesses and Republican lawmakers strongly oppose the bill, which passed, 22-16; a bill needs 21 affirmative votes to pass in the New Jersey Senate.

Supporters hailed the Senate vote as a major step forward for the state.

"Far too many individuals have had to make the tough decision between caring for a loved one and being able to maintain their income," said Sen. Barbara Buono (D., Middlesex), who sponsored the bill with Senate Majority Leader Stephen M. Sweeney (D., Gloucester). "These are choices that should never have to be made in the United States, and soon they will no longer be choices forced upon New Jersey families."

The bill offers workers leave at two-thirds of their salary, up to $504 per week, for six weeks. Workers would pay for the cost of the program through a payroll deduction, estimated to cost employees $33 a year. Workers could take one leave per 12-month period.

Federal law allows workers to take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave; employers with fewer than 50 employees are exempt.

The New Jersey bill is expected to be heard in the Assembly Appropriations Committee early next week and voted on by the full Assembly later in the week. The bill is expected to pass in the Assembly, which Democrats control, 48-32.

Gov. Corzine has said if the legislature approves the bill, he will sign it into law.

Opponents of the bill argue it would place an undue burden on employers at a time when the state cannot afford to lose any more industry. Small businesses, for example, said it would be difficult for them to carry on without employees for six paid weeks.

"We have the heart for it, we don't have the wallet," said Sen. Kevin J. O'Toole (R., Passaic).

Senate Republican Budget Officer Leonard Lance, of Hunterdon County, argued that paid family leave should be handled by the federal government rather than the state government.

"This will make New Jersey noncompetitive, particularly with Pennsylvania," Lance said.

Philip Kirschner, president of the New Jersey Business and Industry Association, called the Senate vote "a real blow to the state's businesses and the state's economy."

"Despite the best of intentions of those who voted for it, it really is going to help destroy the state's ability to create jobs," he said.

But proponents said the time had finally come for paid family leave in New Jersey.

Sweeney, who was the driving force behind the latest versions of the bill, spoke of the personal experiences that shaped his view.

"I'm sponsoring this legislation as a father who understands the urgency of this type of leave time for working families because I was in a similar situation 14 years ago when my daughter Lauren was born four months premature," Sweeney said.

Maretta Short, president of the New Jersey chapter of the National Organization for Women, is optimistic the measure will pass in the Assembly.

"They made a decision that puts people over profits for the first time in a long time," Short said of the Senate.

Senator Loretta Weinberg, (D., Bergen) a cosponsor of the bill, spoke about taking time off from her job as an assemblywoman nine years ago to care for her dying husband, Irwin.

She disputed arguments that paid family leave would wreak havoc on New Jersey businesses.

"The sky won't fall when we get family leave," Weinberg said. "Bars stayed open when we lowered the blood alcohol content for drunken driving. Restaurants didn't close when we banned smoking in public places, and insurance companies are still functioning after we passed a 48-hour hospital stay for new moms and their babies.

"Likewise, businesses will continue to function with workers whose lives will be richer because of the family time they secured through this legislation," she said.

State Labor Commissioner David Socolow, who supports the measure, estimates about 1 percent of New Jersey's 4.1 million workers, or about 38,000 people, would claim the benefit each year.

In California, which adopted paid family leave in 2004, 87 percent of the claims for paid family leave were by workers taking time off to care for a newborn. Washington's paid family leave will take effect in October 2009.

How They Voted

Senators voting to approve a bill to allow workers to take paid leave to care for a sick relative or newborn were John H. Adler (D., Camden); Fred H. Madden (D., Gloucester); Dana Redd (D., Camden); and Stephen M. Sweeney (D., Gloucester).

Voting against the measure were Christopher J. Connors (R., Ocean); Phil Haines (R., Burlington); and Robert W. Singer (R., Ocean).

Not voting was Diane B. Allen (R., Burlington).

Top Top | NJCA in the News | NJCA Homepage