Asbury Park Press

NJ Paid Family Leave: How To Claim It And How The Program Might Be Improved

Asbury Park Press — May 23, 2017

By Bob Jordan

TRENTON — Democratic lawmakers want to expand the state's family leave law, saying it's underused and should provide greater compensation, but their move to do so adds to a growing list of progressive agenda items that may have to wait until Republican Gov. Chris Christie leaves office in January.

Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto, D-Hudson, said Tuesday that he wants to change the 2009 law's maximum number of leave weeks from 6 to 12, allow for benefits for bonding with a newborn or an adopted child, and boost the cap on weekly benefits from $633 to $932 per week.

But Prieto's plan differs from a proposal offered by Senate Democrats a month ago — and neither is likely to win support from Christie or backing from the state's business community.

Prieto recently announced that he'll vie to hold his Assembly leadership position for a third two-year term. Lawmakers will make the choice after the November elections, in which all 120 seats are on the ballot and Democrats are favored to retain control of both houses of the Legislature.

Prieto is expected to be challenged by Craig Coughlin, D-Middlesex, though Coughlin hasn't formally announced that he's running for speaker.

The choice should come down to who's better at promoting progressive values, Prieto said.

"I put my record where it is ... things like we're seeing here today,'' he said. "We've made the Assembly relevant again.''

Prieto made the comments during and after a State House news conference, where he was joined by Dena Mottola Jaborska from New Jersey Citizen Action and other leaders of advocacy groups.

Bill A-4927 was described as "similar'' to the Senate's S-3085 by Jaborska, but full details of the new legislation were not immediately available.

New Jersey is among a handful of states to offer family leave insurance, which is funded through employee payroll deductions of 0.1 percent, until the yearly maximum deduction of $33.50 is reached.

But Prieto and Jaborska said the deductions would be unchanged and that highlights of the new bill expand the definition of family to include siblings, grandparents, grandchildren and parents-in-law; allow a covered worker to take leave to care for a family member who has been a victim of an incident of domestic violence or a sexually violent offense; and allow self-employed small business owners to opt in to the program.

"While New Jersey was one of the first states to adopt this program, the New Jersey Family Leave Insurance Program has fallen short of its promise and left far too many people behind,'' Jaborska said. "Low- and middle-income families especially cannot afford to access the program. We must strengthen the program so everyone in our state can take time to care for a new children or sick family member.''

More than 155,000 people in New Jersey used paid family leave, but a 2016 Columbia University study found that relatively few people know about the program or how to sign up.

According to a story in New Republic, business groups opposed family leave legislation in 2009. After then-Gov. Jon Corzine signed the bill, Christie promised to overturn it during his campaign against Corzine, but Christie never followed through.

Prieto said he believes Christie will be receptive, but conceded that Democrats might have to wait until a new governor is seated.

The four leading Democratic candidates for governor say they would legalize marijuana and have stressed the need for enhanced environmental protections, and lawmakers from the party have bills for those initiatives and other topics on track to be on the next governor's desk in the new year.

"We're always optimistic that he would do the right thing,'' Prieto said of Christie. "The governor is probably trying to find friends to help his ratings, so I think on his way out he'll have his heart in the right place.''

Christie at a his own press conference on a different topic said he and Prieto haven't talked, "so I don't know the basis for his opitmism,'' he said.

"I haven't seen the bill. I don't know what it does, who pays for it, how much it's going to cost, and all the rest of that,'' Christie added.

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