The New Jersey legislature, despite heated opposition from the state's business leaders, yesterday became the third in the nation to adopt paid family leave.
Twenty-one senators voted in favor of the paid-family-leave bill - the minimum required for approval - while 15 voted against. The Assembly ratified the measure last month.
Gov. Corzine is expected to sign the bill, which would allow workers to take up to six weeks of paid leave to care for newborns, newly adopted children or sick relatives.
"I know this type of leave time is necessary, because I've been there myself," said Senate Majority Leader Stephen Sweeney (D., Gloucester), a sponsor of the bill. He was referring to the birth of his now-14- year-old daughter, Lauren, who remained in intensive care for 75 days after she was born.
"In my case, I had an understanding employer, but I can't say the same for all of New Jersey's workers," Sweeney continued. "This bill would signify a new day for the state's workforce, in that the needs of families will be put before the needs of business owners."
But opponents argued the state's economy is too weak to support an additional burden.
"I have to ask why now," said Sen. Christopher "Kip" Bateman (R., Somerset). "This will be one of the final nails in the coffin of small businesses in New Jersey."
Federal law provides workers in companies with 50 or more employees up to 12 weeks of unpaid family leave.
California is the only state that currently offers workers paid family leave, although it is available in many other countries. Washington approved a paid-family-leave law that is set to take effect in October 2009.
New Jersey workers will start paying a payroll deduction toward the benefit on Jan. 1, 2009, and could begin taking the leave on July 1, 2009. In 2010, the deduction would total about $33 per worker per year, or about 25 cents a week for a minimum-wage worker.
Under the bill, workers are entitled to two-thirds of their salary, up to $524 per week. Businesses with fewer than 50 employees would not be required to keep jobs open to workers who take the leave.
During the last legislative session, a bill that would have offered workers up to 10 weeks of paid leave stalled in the legislature. Proponents have fought for the measure for over a decade, and applauded yesterday's vote.
"It's a big step forward for working people," said Jon Shure, president of the think tank New Jersey Policy Perspective. "They're getting help balancing work and family."
But business leaders say the measure will make it harder for companies to compete with firms in other states and countries and likely will cost more than its advocates estimate.
"Employers are extremely upset about this," said Joan Verplanck, president of the New Jersey Chamber of Commerce. "Every business organization in the state has made the business case. If we're trying to grow ourselves out of this immense hole we're in through the economy . . . this is probably the wrong way to do it."
The chamber commissioned a study that concluded the state had underestimated the cost of the program and the number of employees who likely would take family leave.
The program will be particularly hard on industries, such as gaming, that are highly regulated and cannot easily replace employees who are taking time off, she said. Many businesses already work hard to help employees with sick family members.
"Anybody that has talent that's hard to replace will do whatever they have to to keep that employee," Verplanck said.
David Kosloff, president of Roosevelt Paper, which is based in Mount Laurel, sees the bill as one more example of the "steady creep of government involvement in private enterprise."
The company, which was cofounded by Kosloff's grandfather during the Depression, has 300 employees, including 160 in New Jersey. Workers with family crises get some flexibility with scheduling and use vacation time or unpaid leave for caregiving. They can sometimes borrow from the next year's vacation time.
Jeff Scheininger, president and chief executive officer of Flexline, which manufactures hose assemblies in Linden, said that even when they can, people at small companies rarely take time off because they know how hard their fellow employees have to work when they're gone.
Most of his employees get about four weeks of vacation and sick time. The company tries to be flexible when people have problems, and in the last 28 years, he said, only four members of his mostly male workforce have needed extra time off. Three of the four longer leaves were for pregnancies.
Scheininger called the bill "badly mistimed," saying that it "really sends an extremely, extremely bad message . . . that the State of New Jersey feels that at this time they can impose this kind of mandate."
Among the bill's backers is the state's chief executive. Reflecting in a news conference at the governor's mansion in Princeton close to a year after the car accident that nearly claimed his life, Corzine said yesterday that the bill has particular significance for him.
"I feel more strongly, in the context of my own experience, that people are served well by having their family near them and supportive of them in periods of great stress," Corzine said.
"My family could afford that," he continued. "Not all families would be able to. This is actually focused very clearly on those who are in the modest and moderate income levels."
Paid Family Leave
A look at New Jersey's proposal to offer workers six weeks' paid leave from their jobs to care for newborn or newly adopted children or sick relatives:
Workers would be paid through a payroll deduction estimated to cost them up to $33 per year. Workers would start paying deductions on Jan. 1, 2009.
Workers would get two-thirds of their salary, up to $524 per week. They could start taking paid leave on July 1, 2009.
The average weekly benefit is estimated to be $415.
About 38,000 New Jersey workers are predicted to take paid leaves each year. There are 4.1 million workers in New Jersey.
Employers could make workers use at least two weeks of sick leave and vacation time before taking paid leave.
Parents would be able to take paid leave anytime during the first year after a child's birth or adoption.
People would be allowed to take paid leave to care for a sick relative who is receiving inpatient care in a hospital, hospice or residential medical-care facility, or who is under the continuing supervision of a health-care provider. A health-care provider would also be able to certify that a sick relative at home needs help from a family member.
The leave could be taken in one six-week period per year, or - to care for a sick relative - 42 intermittent days per year.
Those who fraudulently take paid leave face various penalties, depending on the offense and severity. Penalties include fines of up to $1,000, up to 90 days in jail and repayment of benefits they received.
Businesses with fewer than 50 employees wouldn't be required to guarantee jobs to workers who take paid leave; such workers who take paid leave and lose their jobs wouldn't be able to use it as a basis for a lawsuit.
SOURCE: Associated Press.
How They Voted
South Jersey senators voting to approve paid leave to workers wishing to care for a new child or sick relative are: John H. Adler (D), Dana Redd (D), Fred H. Madden (D), and Stephen M. Sweeney (D).
Voting against the measure were Phil Haines (R), Christopher J. Connors (R), and Robert W. Singer (R).
Not voting was Diane B. Allen (R).