Philadelphia Inquirer

N.J. Family Leave Is The Right Thing

The Philadelphia Inquirer — Saturday, April 12, 2008

By Chris Satullo
Inquirer Columnist

Imagine: A mother sits contentedly in her bedroom in Marlton, nursing her 3-month-old baby, making good use of extended paid leave from her job at a Cherry Hill bank.

This blissful moment is brought to you by . . . Don Imus?

Follow the bouncing ball from the craggy, crude radio talker to that sweet scene of nurture:

A year ago, Imus emitted his vile, unfunny insult against Rutgers University's women basketballers. Gov. Corzine, rushing to the parley he'd arranged between Imus and the athletes, got into a scary auto crash that left him hospitalized for weeks.

Fast-forward a year. This week, Corzine signed a law setting up paid family medical leave, making his the third state to take this far-sighted step – and only the second to actually fund the program.

In doing so, Corzine said his accident taught him a lesson that's long been vivid for families not insulated by Wall Street wealth:

With a slip, a swerve, or a somber sentence from a doctor, life can change in an instant, from smooth and settled to chaotic and stressed.

America's workplaces, by and large, aren't set up to help people cope with such moments.

The new family-leave law permits workers to get up to six weeks of leave to take care of newborns, newly adopted children, or ill family members, at two-thirds of their pay.

Advocates of the idea tend, as I did above, to zero in on cuddly images of infants. The greatest usage, however, may grow out of a different need: helping rising generations cope with the aging of their long-living boomer parents. The graying of the baby boom will drive most states to grapple soon with the strains of elder care. New Jersey will be glad it got there early.

Not that the state's employers see it this way. They're whining like 10-year-olds told to load their plates in the dishwasher.

One of the corporate sector's mouthpieces in the Legislature carped that the law would be "one of the final nails in the coffin" for the state's economy. Really? Brief leaves for less than 1 percent of the state's 4.1 million workers? That's a crushing burden?

Gee, given their grousing, you'd think employers were being asked to pay for this benefit. Not so. The paid leaves will be subsidized by a small, regular deduction from workers' paychecks, i.e. self-insurance.

All bosses have to do is manage the paperwork, and find ways to fill in during absences. Not nothing, but a small tariff to support family values in a real way, while likely boosting morale. Taking a couple of weeks off to set up an ailing parent with proper services saps a worker's output far less than having the office phone ring three times a day with distress signals from Dad.

The business sector's alarms remind me of Detroit automakers' apocalyptic cries about the costs of seat belts and airbags. Yet years later, they were running ads touting their cars' safety features.

Soon, New Jersey employers will be recruiting top talent by extolling their "family-friendly" workplaces. Make book on that.

I've covered government for 30-odd years, 19 in and around Philly. So I'd never deny that regulation can sometimes be overbearing, counterproductive or corrupt. The current Democratic primary also offers frequent displays of the liberal delusion that government tinkering can thwart global market trends.

But your local airport now features the outcome of an opposing, conservative fallacy: the assumption that whenever government oversight cuts into profits, whenever it forces capitalists to absorb costs of doing business that they'd prefer to foist on the public, it's government that's in the wrong.

For those with this knee-jerk attitude, which has run the nation for eight years, it doesn't matter how vital the societal good at stake might be.

Ask anyone waiting glumly at the airport today: Would you pay $5 more in fares to ensure that the plane you're about to board has been checked for cracks in the fuselage since, say, the first season of Lost? Hey, I know I'm in.

The job of government isn't to pretend it can outthink markets. But it is its job to smooth out capitalism's jagged edges, to protect societal goods from getting trampled in the pursuit of profit.

This leave bill does just that. Good for the Garden State. Shame on the law's critics.

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