Prieto, Sweeney: Separate Takes on Expanding Family Leave

Both favor boosting paid time off and increasing how much workers can collect while they’re not on the job — the differences are in the details

Father and baby
Add expanded paid family leave to the list of issues that the leaders of New Jersey’s legislative houses are arguing about.

On Tuesday, Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto (D-Hudson) announced his 24-page legislation to broaden the state’s paid family leave program, increasing expected pay and covering other circumstances while guaranteeing a worker’s job while on leave. It comes about two months after Sen. President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester) introduced his own family leave expansion, and two weeks after Sweeney held a roundtable on the topic.

The two leaders have dueled over the details of new programs continuously the past few years. Currently, they have proposed competing school-funding formula reform bills.

Expanding paid family leave

Prieto introduced his bill (A4927) on Monday and held a press conference with several groups supporting the measure. All said an expansion of paid family leave is needed because New Jersey’s current program does not go far enough to help workers caring for a child or family member. In fact, relatively few people have taken advantage of the current program, enacted in 2009, because they either don’t know about it, can’t afford to live on the lower payments, or fear their employer will not hold their job open when they return from leave.

“New Jersey was the second state to get paid family leave, but now we have lagged behind other states,” Prieto said. “We need to expand it as other states have.”

More than 155,000 people used New Jersey’s current paid family leave to take care of a new child or a sick relative during the first five years of the law, but a study by the Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health found that too few know the benefits exist or how to sign up.

“The law has helped almost 200,000 people, but many have been left behind by the program,” said Dena Mottola Jaborska, associate director of New Jersey Citizen Action and a proponent of the expansion. “Many low- and middle-income workers are not able to access it because the wage replacement is too low. Workers at small companies are afraid to take leave because they are not eligible for job protection.”

The current law

The existing law gives workers six weeks, or 42 days, off at up to two-thirds of their pay; there is currently a cap of $633 a week. Employees pay 0.1 percent of their salary to a yearly maximum contribution of $33.50 to cover the program. The paid leave does not include job protection, but the state and federal family-leave laws do give guaranteed job protection for many workers at larger companies — those with more than 50 workers.

Prieto’s bill would give workers several additional benefits:

  • Up to 12 weeks, or 84 days, of paid leave;
  • Increase the amount paid to 90 percent of pay to a maximum $851 per week for those at or below 200 percent of poverty, or 80 percent of pay to a maximum $932 for those with higher incomes;
  • Provide job protection for workers taking leave;
  • Expand the leave to cover those caring for siblings, grandparents, grandchildren; and parents- in-law; victims of domestic violence or sexual violence; and those who have a child through a surrogate;
  • Allow the self-employed to buy into the program and be covered;
  • Provide that family-leave benefits for bonding with a newborn or an adopted child may be taken on an intermittent basis.
  • “I think these are quality-of-life things we want to do for workers in the state of New Jersey,” Prieto said.

    The speaker said his bill provides a more sweeping expansion of the program. A comparison of the bills bears that out.

    The Sweeney scheme

    Sweeney’s bill is more limited than Prieto’s. It would provide the same expansion of paid time by days and weeks as Prieto’s. The Senate President’s bill would also increase the amount of pay, but to 50 percent for all, with a cap at 53 percent of the statewide average wage, a lower amount than Prieto’s bill. It would not make others eligible or provide any job protections.

    Job protection is key because 92 percent of New Jersey businesses employ fewer than 50 workers and they are not willing to use the family-leave benefit that all state workers pay for unless they know their jobs will be waiting when they return from leave, said Eric Richard, legislative director of the New Jersey AFL-CIO.

    Jon Whiten, vice president of New Jersey Policy Perspective, a liberal think tank, said a study the organization did found that, “compared to other states, very few in New Jersey take advantage of the benefit.” It is estimated that fewer than 1 percent of those paying into the family leave program use it. NJPP recommended a number of changes that are essentially embodied in Prieto’s bill.

    Stephanie Hunsinger, state director of the New Jersey AARP, said the changes in the program will help the group’s working members, particularly the state’s estimated 52,000 grandparents caring for their grandchildren.

    The presidential plan

    The press conference on the bill came on the same day as the president’s federal budget proposal, which includes a provision for a federal paid family leave program. Though details were not available, the Trump program would require all employers to give six weeks of leave to parents after the birth or adoption of a child. State unemployment insurance systems would administer the program, as New Jersey’s is currently run, and the federal government would provide $25 billion over 10 years to fund it nationwide.

    Jaborska said the federal proposal is “far inferior” to New Jersey’s current program and to Prieto’s proposal.

    “With these changes, we will have one of the best paid family-leave programs in the country,” Jaborska said.

    But the chance of the bill’s enactment is uncertain, given that opposition from the business community is all but guaranteed.

    ‘A seat at the table’

    In a statement issued after the press conference, the New Jersey Business & Industry Association said that it was still reviewing the bill and appreciated Prieto’s offer giving the organization “a seat at the table” to work on the issue.

    However, the NJBIA statement read, “We are always concerned about the impact that proposals such as this have on our members. Most of those we represent are small businesses with fewer than 50 employees. While it is important that employees have the flexibility to take leave for family reasons, potential expansion of the current law must always take into account our members’ ability to perform vital functions with fewer staff and also the potential additional costs involved for those business owners who may now just be operating at the margins.”

    But Jerome Montes of the New Jersey Main Street Alliance said the group’s 1,600 independently owned and small businesses across the state back Prieto’s bill.

    “All of main street should benefit from this program,” he said. “Most forward-thinking small business owners see this as an employee retention tool.”

    Whether Gov. Chris Christie is likely to sign the bill is in doubt, however. Asked about the likelihood of Christie signing his bill, Prieto said the governor will sign it if he wants to improve his low approval rating.

    Neither Prieto’s nor Sweeney’s bill has received a hearing yet or a fiscal estimate. Both bills would not change the current funding system, through which only employees pay. NJPP had estimated the state could pay for its recommendations through a modest increase in the employee contribution.