Press of Atlantic City

Family Leave Heads To Corzine

Press of Atlantic City — Tuesday, April 8, 2008

By DEREK HARPER
Statehouse Bureau

TRENTON — Many New Jersey residents soon will be able to take as much as a month-and-a-half paid time off to care for members of their immediate family now that the state Senate has ratified the family leave bill.

The bill squeaked through Monday with the minimum 21 votes needed to clear the 40-member upper chamber as Republicans sniped at Sen. Jeff Van Drew, D-Cape May, Cumberland, Atlantic, who provided a crucial vote.

The bill cleared the Assembly 46-30 last month, and Gov. Jon S. Corzine has indicated he would sign it. The family leave plan is not expected to be enacted immediately.

The bill would make the state the third in the nation with laws providing for people to take time off for medical issues.

California grants six weeks leave, while a Washington state bill will provide five weeks when it takes effect in October 2009.

Federal law provides as much as three months of unpaid leave for workers at businesses with more than 50 employees.

Under the new law, employees could draw as much as two-thirds of their salaries from the state Temporary Disability Insurance fund, as much as $502 per week. They could take leave to care for sick immediate family members and newborn and newly adopted children.

Employees across the state would pay about $25 into the fund during its first year, eventually rising to about $33 per year.

New Jersey has about 4.1 million workers. State Labor Commissioner David Socolow has estimated that about 38,000 people annually would take advantage of the program.

While legislators have said the bill would cost the state $104 million per year by 2011, the state Chamber of Commerce, which opposed the measure, said it would be more costly and would require greater payroll deductions.

Business groups generally opposed the measure, while labor, women's and a number of smaller liberal groups supported it.

After the vote, about 50 people gathered in the balcony applauded, including the head of the state workers union.

"This is a very exciting moment for all of us who had been working so hard for this over the last 12 years," said Carla Katz, president of Communications Workers of America Local 1034.

Bill sponsor Stephen M. Sweeney, D-Cumberland, Salem, Gloucester, compared the law to Social Security, enacted during the Great Depression. Sweeney, the Senate majority leader, said he thought the current recession would be over before the bill takes effect.

The Senate voted 22-16 for an earlier version of the bill last month but had to revote following Assembly changes. Those came after state Attorney General Anne Milgram suggested a way to block wrongful-termination lawsuits from employees at companies of fewer than 50 employees who take leave but lose their jobs.

The changes shaved a vote off the Democratic column, as Sen. Nia H. Gill, D-Essex, Passaic, said Monday she could no longer support the bill because it was unfair to people at smaller firms.

"I came here for a lot of things," she said, "but I didn't come here to strip people of their rights or their access to the courts."

Republicans had called on Van Drew to vote against family leave ever since he told The Press of Atlantic City on March 26 that he wanted Corzine to place a broad moratorium on "new regulations that could in any way affect the economy of the Garden State."

"I think we have to be excruciatingly careful," Van Drew said last month. "The time for bold, new visionary legislation is not now and absolutely not the place."

On Monday, freshman Sen. Jennifer Beck, R-Monmouth, Mercer, cited the quote as she called out Van Drew on the Senate floor, asking him to vote against the bill in a move that breached protocol and enraged Democrats.

"Go back to the Assembly!" Sen. Raymond J. Lesniak, D-Union, shouted to Beck, who served a term in the lower chamber.

"What is this, amateur hour?" Lesniak's neighbor, Sen. Nicholas P. Scutari, D-Middlesex, Somerset, Union, added, thumbing a copy of "New Jersey Lawyer" magazine while Beck spoke.

Beck said later, "I just found that in light of that statement that it was disappointing that [Van Drew] would support paid family leave which would apply a tax to every employee in the state."

After the vote, Van Drew said he voted for the bill because it was destined to pass, with or without the business exemption Gill criticized. Van Drew, a dentist, is a partner in a Pleasantville dental firm that he said employs eight people.

He also directed Beck to Sen. Bill Baroni, R-Mercer, Middlesex, who cast the lone Republican vote for the bill, as well as former Sen. Nicholas Asselta, R-Cape, Cumberland, Atlantic, who Van Drew said previously supported an earlier version.

Van Drew stood by his earlier statements about opposing new fees and regulations, saying he voted against creating a stormwater utility on March 10 in the Environment committee.

"I think it really is time that we have to stop ... mak[ing] tremendous change[s] in the state of New Jersey as far as some of the social issues," Van Drew said. "Our number one job is to get this budget under control, period."

He added of the vote "This is what leadership's about, and it's what tough votes are really comprised of, and this was a tough vote, and I believe I did the best I could in a practical way to make sure this came out as good as possible."

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