Key vote coming on paid leave in NJ

March 2, 2008 1:21:44 PM PST
It'll be a vote more than a decade in the making, one embraced by organized labor and Democrats but decried by businesses and Republicans. The Senate on Monday will vote whether to make New Jersey the third state to let workers take paid leave from work to care for a sick relative or newborn child. The bill would allow six weeks of paid leave.

It would be the first full vote on the measure backers have sought for 12 years.

"It does the right thing for working men and women," said Senate Majority Leader Stephen Sweeney, D-Gloucester.

But businesses contend it will hit hard amid a sagging economy by possibly forcing them to go without employees for more than a month.

"We're entering a recession, employers are already struggling and this will do nothing but worsen the situation," said Jim Leonard, a New Jersey Chamber of Commerce vice president.

The bill was approved Thursday by an Assembly committee and is expected to be considered by that house in the coming weeks.

Gov. Jon S. Corzine has said he would sign it.

But it's become the subject of an aggressive campaign to defeat it. The Chamber said its members have sent more than 1,000 e-mails to legislators voicing opposition to the bill, while a conservative group has been running radio ads against it.

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.

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

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

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

In California, 87 percent of those who took it did so to care for a newborn, with women accounting for 80 percent of those who took it.

"Paid leave is among the most family friendly policies we can provide New Jersey's working men and women," said Assemblywoman Sheila Oliver, D-Essex.

Sen. Anthony Bucco, R-Morris, called on Democrats, who control the Assembly and the Senate, to drop the plan, citing employment data showing the state added just 3,700 jobs last year - the worst since 2003 - and lost 9,200 private-sector jobs in January, the worst month in five years.

"The governor and the Legislature are being warned by economists that the disastrous job numbers show that corporate America is not doing its expansion in New Jersey," Bucco said.

"Yet, the response to this warning by the Democrats is to pass a paid leave mandate that will put this state at a competitive disadvantage with every other state east of the Sierra Nevada Mountains."

The bill has backing from organized labor.

Charles Wowkanech, the New Jersey AFL-CIO president, said the plan would "recognize the importance of allowing parents to spend the precious first weeks with their newborns, or the opportunity to care for an ailing loved one, without the fear of losing the roofs over their heads."

Assemblyman Jay Webber, R-Morris, said it will do the opposite.

He said the charges against weekly wages would be a new tax.

"The ramifications of this bill on New Jersey taxpayers and businesses will be devastating," Webber said. "Not only will its impact harm the very people it is intended to help, but we will lose more jobs as well."

Conservative group Americans for Prosperity is running the radio ads against the measure.

"This is the most anti-business, anti-taxpayer proposal to come out of the most anti-business, anti-taxpayer Legislature in America today," said the group's director, Steve Lonegan.

Sweeney rejected such arguments.

"I've heard testimony from critics who argue that they cannot afford to provide this type of leave time for their employees, but I say that we cannot afford not to," he said.

Senate Budget Chairwoman Barbara Buono agreed.

"When all is said and done, this bill is really about protecting families who are just trying to make ends meet," said Buono, D-Middlesex.