Emotional debate over paid leave

March 15, 2008 12:04:21 PM PDT
Matters of the heart are clashing with economic realities as New Jersey puts the finishing touches on a law requiring companies to grant workers paid leave to care for a newborn, newly adopted child or sick relative. New Jersey will likely soon be the third state to require companies to offer six weeks of paid leave after the state Senate takes final action on a measure that has evoked emotional testimony from residents.

Robert Serrano, a 39-year-old grocery clerk, told lawmakers a paid leave option would have allowed him to spend more time with his wife, who died of leukemia about two years ago. He remembers an exhausting 18 months when he tried to balance a full-time job and trips to be with his wife in a Philadelphia hospital.

"I would come home after my night shift, I would take two- to three-hour naps and then I would head to Pennsylvania and try to beat traffic and not get caught in traffic, and spend some time with her at the hospital, maybe two hours with her, and then I would have to leave again," he said.

"I sacrificed a lot of time (working) that I could have been with her," he said.

The New Jersey program, beginning July 1, 2009, would require all businesses to offer six weeks of paid leave to employees who request it to care for a new child or sick family member. Workers who take leave would get two-thirds of their salary, up to $524 per week.

The paid-leave benefit would cost employees an estimated $33 per year, which would be automatically deducted from paychecks similar to state taxes.

The Senate is expected to approve the bill in the next few weeks, and Gov. Jon S. Corzine says he will sign it.

Opponents of the measure cite the potential for fraud, and say the program will hurt job growth.

"One would expect lawmakers to pursue policies to create jobs and strengthen the economy, not impose more obstacles to job growth," said Philip Kirschner, executive director of the New Jersey Business & Industry Association.

Out of concern for the measure's impact on small businesses, lawmakers would allow businesses with fewer than 50 employees to tell workers they won't be guaranteed to keep their jobs if they take leave.

Sal Risalvato, the executive director of the New Jersey Gasoline-Convenience-Automotive Association, which represents 1,500 small businesses, is among those worried the law would hit businesses hard in tough economic times.

Risalvato also worries about a potential for abuse.

"You are giving an incentive," Risalvato said. "Is there anybody who doesn't think staying home for a week and receiving let's say $500 a week isn't something that somebody wouldn't consider doing?"

Backers of the paid-leave measure point to people like Serrano as an example of how it would help New Jersey families.

"This is the exact and only reason that we are pushing forward," said Assemblyman Nelson Albano, D-Cape May.

California allows workers to take up to six weeks paid leave under a 2004 law, while Washington will allow workers to take five weeks paid leave as of October 2009. Federal law allows workers in businesses with at least 50 employees to take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave.

State Labor Commissioner David Socolow estimates 38,000 New Jersey workers annually would take paid leave. New Jersey has 4.1 million workers.

Opponents of the bill say New Jersey cannot afford to require businesses go more than a month without key workers, especially after employment data showed the state added 3,700 jobs last year and lost 9,200 private-sector jobs in January. That's the worst year and month in five years.

"We have the heart for it," said Sen. Kevin O'Toole, R-Essex. "We don't have the wallet for it."


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