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State mandates residency. There are always exceptions.

Small group makes the call on where N.J. workers must live

For the last two years, the meeting held monthly in a bare Trenton conference room determined the fates of hundreds of New Jersey public employees, including scores of teachers and school administrators.

But the process has nothing to do with disciplinary actions or tenure or anything like that. The meetings of the five-member Employee Residency Review Committee are all about where people can live if they want to hold onto their jobs.

Under the New Jersey First Act, enacted in 2011, all New Jersey public employees must reside in New Jersey. There are a couple of exceptions, and the law grandfathered those who already lived out of state as long as they don't move.

But it's pretty unforgiving otherwise, and it takes some fairly extraordinary circumstances of "critical need or hardship" for someone to live in New York, Pennsylvania, or anywhere else.

And that's where the review committee - made up of five legislative and gubernatorial appointees - comes in, as the adjudicator of those requests.

In all, 501 cases have come before the committee as of May, with public employees requesting exemptions due to everything from health issues in their families to financial constraints that prevent them from staying in the state.

More than half of the cases involved local public school employees, followed by those working in state government.

The committee has granted more than two-thirds of the requests and denied the balance, virtually all by unanimous votes. Close to three-quarters of the school requests were granted.

The board's most recent meeting, held last Tuesday afternoon on the 13th floor of the New Jersey Department of Labor and Workforce Development, reflected the kinds of circumstances that the law has put people in.

About a dozen of the 27 applications on the docket showed up and waited their turn to make their cases, many involving sick parents and grandparents they had to care for.

"My grandmother is 87 years old, and just not in a position where she can take care of herself," said Harry Doctor Jr., a West Windsor-Plainsboro school employee who was seeking to move to Pennsylvania and brought doctors' notes to prove his grandmother's condition.

The board granted the request, 3-0, with two members absent.

As a rule, the more documentation, the better. And a note from the employer that the employees' retention poses a "critical need" helps even more, but not without proving that the move would be a hardship. Simply saying that it is less expensive to live elsewhere - a common plea - is almost never enough, officials said.

A teacher at University Academy Charter High School in Jersey City got that post a year ago, knowing he would have to move from Pennsylvania within the year. But sitting before the board on Tuesday with the year up, he testified that he wanted to stay to be close to his Army Reserve unit.

Board members quizzed him as to why he couldn't return to Pennsylvania for the drills. "Why can't you live in New Jersey other than it is just more convenient in Pennsylvania?" asked board member Parthenopy Bardis, chief of staff to Civil Service Commission Chairman Robert Czech.

The teacher said that selling his house at this point would also be a financial loss, due to the mortgage exceeding the value. But even that needed proof, and in the end, the board granted approval pending a mortgage statement and an appraisal.

Others weren't so fortunate. One said she had moved to New Jersey for a romantic relationship that didn't last, and now she wanted to move back to Pennsylvania where she would have more financial support. The board left that one pending until she could prove the financial hardship and also provide a letter of need from her district.

A Flemington-Raritan school employee didn't even get that. Not attending the hearing, she said in her application that her husband had gotten a new job that forced a two-hour commute each way into Pennsylvania.

"But they made that decision after the new law," Bardis said. "What is the job in Pennsylvania that he couldn't find in New Jersey?"

When informed it was a journalist's position and he had been unemployed three years, it still wasn't enough. The board voted to deny, 3-0.