N.J. lawmakers push for paid leave

January 28, 2008 5:12:31 PM PST
Democratic senators on Monday renewed efforts to make New Jersey the third state to let workers take paid leave to care for either a sick relative or new child amid opposition from businesses and Republicans.

The Senate budget committee pushed forward a measure to let employees take up to six weeks off with pay.

It voted 8-6 to release the bill, with all except one Democrat supporting it and all Republicans opposed. The vote clears the bill for consideration by the Senate, which is controlled 23-17 by Democrats. The Assembly, also controlled by Democrats, hasn't considered the measure.

A proposal that would have let workers take 10 weeks paid leave failed to make it into law during the legislative session that ended Jan. 8. That came after a plan for 12 weeks paid leave also stalled.

"When families have to make a decision between having to take care of a loved one and a job, that's just not fair," said Senate Majority Leader Stephen Sweeney, the initiative's sponsor.

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 has allowed workers in businesses with at least 50 employees to take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave since 1993.

The New Jersey leave would be paid through a charge against weekly wages that legislative officials estimate would cost workers about $33 per year. Workers who take leave would get two-thirds of their salary, up to $502 per week.

State Labor Commissioner David Socolow, who along with Gov. Jon S. Corzine backs the proposal, estimated 38,000 New Jersey workers annually would take paid leave. New Jersey has 4.1 million workers.

In California, most of those who have taken leave did so because of a newborn child.

The bill is backed by organized labor.

"Who wouldn't want to spend $33 a year to buy an insurance program for their families?" asked New Jersey State AFL-CIO President Charles Wowkanech.

But businesses contend paid leave would hurt what they describe as an already-struggling business climate and hit small businesses hard.

"We are either in a recession or great economic slowdown," said Philip Kirschner, the president of the New Jersey Business & Industry Association. "While Congress, in a bipartisan fashion, is working to help business weather this tough economic time, New Jersey is making it more difficult for employers by imposing a huge new mandate."

Sweeney, D-Gloucester, expressed disappointment with continued business opposition.

"This bill is fair, it's just and it's time that this Legislature passes it," Sweeney said. "This is 2008. It's time we cared about the people who work for us."

But Republicans worried the measure would send businesses fleeing to other states.

"It is hard to believe that New Jersey is in such sad shape on so many fronts that our prosperity is endangered," said Sen. Anthony Bucco, R-Morris. "This bill might just be that last nail in the coffin for New Jersey businesses."