Ten months after it was vetoed by the prior governor, legislation to greatly expand New Jersey’s paid family-leave benefits took its first step on Thursday toward the desk of the new governor, who is expected to be more amenable to the proposal.
Expanded family leave is just the latest initiative that legislative Democrats failed to get past former Gov. Chris Christie during the past eight years that they are now pushing through, hoping to have better luck with a friendlier governor. While campaigning last year, Gov. Phil Murphy expressed his support for expanded family leave and criticized Christie’s conditional veto, which essentially gutted the bill.
Co-sponsored by Sen. President Steve Sweeney (D-Gloucester), S-2528 is similar to the bill that passed both houses of the Legislature last year. It would give eligible workers more paid leave to care for a newborn or another family member and more money for each day of leave they take. The Senate Labor Committee voted 3-1 to advance the bill.
“Family leave insurance can be a lifeline for working families and their loved ones,” Sweeney, who authored the original paid-leave law in 2009, said in a statement. “For parents of newborns or adopted children, or those who need time to care for a seriously ill family member, paid leave offers them the ability to balance the obligations of work and family without jeopardizing their economic security.''
Not surprising, business organizations oppose the measure, saying it is especially onerous coming so close on the heels of the state’s enactment of earned sick-leave and equal-pay laws. Organizations representing families, children and labor groups strongly support it, although they complained that the bill’s job protection for those taking family leave does not shield enough workers.
Current law gives workers six weeks, or 42 days, off at up to two-thirds of their pay to a maximum of $633 a week. Employees pay 0.1 percent of their salary to a yearly maximum contribution of $33.50 to cover the program. A person working at a company with at least 50 employees can take paid leave.
This measure would provide a big boost in paid leave. It would double to 12 weeks, or 84 days, the amount of time a person could be paid for leave, increase the maximum weekly payment to 90 percent of pay or a maximum $1,195 per week, expand eligibility to take leave both to workers at smaller companies with at least 30 employees, and augment the list of ill family members for whom a worker could seek time off to take care of.
New Jersey, one of only four states with paid leave, would have the lengthiest and most generous benefits in the country with the new bill, according to the sponsors.
“The purpose of the NJFLI program is to provide working people in New Jersey with economic security so that they are able to take time off from work following the birth or adoption of a child, or to care for a loved one who is facing a serious illness,” said Dena Mottola Jaborska of New Jersey Citizen Action and the Time to Care Coalition. “The program has done a lot of good for a lot of people, but not everyone in the state who has needed the program, has been able to access the program … S-2528 makes important changes to the NJFLI program that will lift barriers to usage and ensure more New Jersey residents who need it, can access it.”
The bill also would give job protection to all those taking paid leave, which is not part of the current law. State and federal unpaid-leave laws do guarantee job protection for most workers at companies with more than 50 workers, but those using the state’s paid leave have no such job security.
Several proponents of the bill complained that the job protection would leave 750,000 workers without job security because the bill would not apply to small businesses, which account for 94 percent of employers in New Jersey. They said the main reason why people don’t take paid family leave now is that they fear they would lose their jobs.
But there is a dispute over how much the paid leave program is used. Jaborska said that just 13 percent of families who gave birth or adopted a child in 2014 took paid leave. However, Christina Renna, vice president of the Chamber of Commerce of Southern New Jersey, said a survey of members last year found three-quarters of businesses had employees take paid family leave.
Businesses pay no taxes to support the family-leave insurance fund, but representatives complained that the bill would nevertheless cost employers more. They contend that a provision in the bill increasing the amount of money pregnant women could be paid from the Temporary Disability Insurance Fund to match the higher paid-family-leave amounts would lead to higher contribution rates for businesses. And allowing workers to take more leave time would force employers to pay overtime to existing employees or hire temp workers to fill in for those on leave.
“All these measures cost money,” said Renna.
“We have historically opposed this legislation because it makes it more difficult and more expensive to run a business in New Jersey,” said Michele Siekerka, president and CEO of the New Jersey Business & Industry Association, in a statement. “Small business is already scrambling to comply with a new paid-sick-leave law and new reporting requirements under a new pay equity law … we strongly urge our policymakers to take a pause and assess the impact this legislation and other policy initiatives will have on New Jersey’s business climate.”
But several proponents, including one man who is ineligible to take leave and has been trying to care for two ill parents, said the expansions are needed. The current law does not replace enough of a worker’s salary to allow him to take leave to care for a loved one, nor does it provide enough time off when an illness is prolonged, proponents contend. And it does not cover many of the family members, including adult children, siblings, and in-laws, who workers also need to assist. Proponents said the bill corrects these problems, as well as making victims of sexual assault and their caregivers eligible for paid leave.
"In the ten years since Family Leave Insurance was signed into law, research in New Jersey and in other states has shown the efficacy of existing paid-leave programs and gaps in coverage,” said Yarrow Willman-Cole of the Center for Women and Work at the Rutgers School of Management and Labor Relations. “With improvements to remove those gaps, more workers in New Jersey will be able to take time to bond with a new child or care for a family member in their time of greatest need.”
Another provision of the bill would allocate $1.2 million from the insurance fund to help increase awareness of the program, which should boost participation. It would also require greater outreach to workers, more timely payment of claims, and reporting data regarding claims and administrative costs by the state Department of Labor.
“Our goal should be that all who need the program, can access it,” said Jaborska, adding that the bill makes progress toward that goal while not yet reaching it. “The NJFLI program is fully funded by all who work in the state. It should be open and accessible for all who need it, if and when they need it.”