NJ Spotlight

Christie's CV Of Family Leave Bill 'Guts' Expanded Program, Critics Claim

Advocates look to next governor for approval; one pol dismisses governor's veto message as 'more snark than fact'

NJ Spotlight — July 25, 2017

By Colleen O'Dea

With less than six months left in the Christie administration, the Democratic leaders of both houses are looking to the new governor to enact an expanded paid family-leave program for New Jersey.

The bill (S-3085/A4927), which would have enhanced the state's eight-year-old paid leave program in several ways, was among 14 at least partially vetoed by Gov. Chris Christie last Friday. Although technically a conditional veto, Christie excised completely 17 of its 23 pages, leaving only its title page, some definitions and minor provisions that would set goals for the timely payment of claims and better promote the program. He also left intact an annual report on paid leave and whether the state Department of Labor and Workforce Development had met the bill's goals, but eliminated from that report any discussion of why goals were not met or a plan to pay claims more quickly.

"His gutting of the bill essentially turns it into a public awareness campaign for the existing program," said Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto (D-Hudson) and a main sponsor of the legislation. "While it's not surprising in the least that Gov. Christie would veto a bill designed to help working families in this state, it's still altogether disappointing."

Because the bill did not pass either house with veto-proof majorities, the chances of overriding Christie's veto are virtually nil. Neither Prieto nor Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester), another sponsor of the measure, is willing to accept Christie's conditions, saying instead they would take their chances that a friendlier chief executive would be in charge come January.

'Gutting' the bill

"Based on how Gov. Christie gutted this pro-worker bill, it seems best at this point to try again when we have a governor who respects the needs of New Jersey's working families," Prieto said through a spokesman.

If current poll results are any indication, they may get their way. The most recent poll by Quinnipiac University last month, found Democratic nominee Phil Murphy leading Republican Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno by more than 2-to-1, with the support of 55 percent of voters.

Murphy clearly supports the effort, posting this message on his Facebook page last Wednesday: "Expanding paid family leave would ensure families will be able to care for a loved one without having to worry. It is the compassionate and fair thing to do for working families. It's now been more than three weeks since this bill landed on the governor's desk, and it cannot collect any more dust. I urge the governor to sign this bill and to give countless New Jersey families the peace of mind they deserve."

'Silent acquiescence'

Further, last Friday, he criticized Christie for conditionally vetoing this bill and others and he also took a shot at his opponent, saying she "stood by the governor's decisions in silent acquiescence."

It's unclear how Guadagno would decide on the measure and her campaign did not return a request for comment.

Of course, the Democrats will also need to keep control of both houses and pass the expansion again in the next session in order for it to be considered by the next governor. The Quinnipiac poll gives them hope that will happen, finding 57 percent voters want to keep the Legislature blue, with 29 percent supporting a swing to the GOP.

The current law gives workers six weeks, or 42 days, off at up to two-thirds of their pay to a maximum of $633 a week. Employees pay 0.1 percent of their salary to a yearly maximum contribution of $33.50 to cover the program. A person working at a company with at least 50 employees can take paid leave to care for a newborn or adopted child or for a seriously ill spouse, parent, or child.

Businesses would not have had to have paid any additional payroll taxes under the expanded bill, as these are paid only by employees. Because so few people use it — either because they are unaware they can, the weekly maximum benefit of two-thirds of salary up to a maximum $633 is too small, or they fear they will lose their job — the fund consistently has a surplus.

A big boost

The bill Christie vetoed would have provided a big boost in leave, doubling to 12 weeks the amount of time a person could be paid for leave, increasing the maximum weekly payment by half to $932, expanding eligibility to take leave both to workers at smaller companies — 20 employees, down from 50 — and the reasons and family members that would allow a worker to take leave. It also would have given job protection to all those taking paid leave, which is now not part of the paid-leave law, although state and federal family unpaid-leave laws do guarantee job protection for most workers at companies with more than 50 workers.

Christie didn't like any of that.

"This bill is a costly expansion, especially to the Paid Family Leave program, that will result in increased taxes to be paid by working citizens in New Jersey," he wrote in his veto message. "The sponsors of this bill have attempted to placate the numerous concerns raised about the fiscal impact of this bill by assuring that it can be done without raising the payroll tax used to support the same. However, the 'facts' supporting that assertion are flimsy at best and put the burden for their mistake, as usual, on the taxpayers."

'More snark than facts'

"As is common, the governor's veto message appears more concerned with snark than facts," replied Prieto. "While we acknowledged that expanding this program would logically come with additional costs, we received the blessing of the small business community because they understand, based on the success of other programs like California's, that the overall benefits far outweigh the costs."

It did not, however, have the support of the NJ Business and Industry Association, which praised Christie for his veto.

"NJBIA strongly opposed the Paid Family Leave expansion because it would have made it difficult to run a small business and also would have required payroll tax increases down the road once the expanded program quickly ran out of money," said Michele Siekerka, president and CEO of the NJBIA. "The governor was correct in saying that the focus should be on raising awareness of the current program before significantly expanding its benefits without any regard for how to pay for it."

"In 2014, only 13 percent of families who gave birth or adopted, took advantage of the program," said Dena Mottola Jaborska of the New Jersey Citizen Action and the Time to Care Coalition. "Additionally, it is estimated that less than 1 percent of family caregivers in the state made use of paid family leave."

She said the family leave insurance fund had a balance of $15.1 million in January, which should grow to $29.4 million next year as contributions are estimated to be $106 million, with just $88.8 million expected to be paid in benefits.

Ignoring the benefits

Jon Whiten, vice president of New Jersey Policy Perspective, a progressive think tank, said Christie wrongly focused on the likely moderate additional costs associated with expanding the program while ignoring the benefits it would have given to both workers and businesses.

"Gov. Christie's gutting of these paid leave improvements is a slap in the face to New Jersey's working families," Whiten said. "New Jersey can — and must — do better for its working caregivers, so we can build a strong workforce and a strong economy."

But Christie agreed with the NJBIA and insisted that the bill would hurt businesses.

"When individuals need to take time off from work, business owners are responsible for ensuring that their businesses continue operating. This legislation would make it increasingly difficult and expensive to run a business, especially a small business, which may not be able to absorb the short-term absence of an essential employee or have the tools to compete for short-term employment coverage. As with similar 'one-size-fits-all' legislation that has reached my desk, this bill may force businesses to limit hiring, relocate, or even close," Christie wrote.

Whiten said that almost every survey has found that most businesses have not seen a negative impact on profitability or productivity as a result of paid family leave and that likely would not have changed under the bill Christie vetoed.

Finally, the governor wrote that the bill "does little to address" the public's "lack of knowledge of the program" so he was "recommending that the bill be amended to focus directly on raising awareness of the benefits currently available."

Both Whiten and Jaborska pointed out, however, that Christie line-item vetoed additional funding — $3 million this year and $3.5 million last year — the Legislature had proposed allocating to boost awareness of the paid leave program.

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