The state Assembly passed a bill Thursday that would vastly expand the state’s family leave policy to give workers more money and time off to take care of a new child or sick relative.
The bill (A-4927) cleared the Assembly by a 49-23 vote with three abstentions. It now awaits Senate approval before going to Gov. Chris Christie’s desk.
The legislation would increase the maximum number of weeks a person can receive benefits from six to 12 and would raise the value of those benefits from two-thirds of a worker’s average weekly wage to 90 percent, though benefits cannot exceed 78 percent of the state average weekly wage.
The bill also makes workers caring for siblings, grandparents, grandchildren and parents-in-law eligible for benefits. Under current law, benefits are only available to care for children, spouses, domestic partners, civil union partners or parents of covered individuals.
The measure expands job protection for those who take benefits to include those who work at businesses with 20 or more employees. Under a law enacted in 2009, job protection is only guaranteed to workers at firms with 50 employees or more.
“New Jersey’s hard-working men and women deserve a program that can truly help them in their time of need, whether it’s caring for a loved one or welcoming a new family member,” Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto (D-Hudson), a bill sponsor, said in a statement. “The 2009 law was a great first step that we all take pride in, but we also know it wasn’t quite enough. We need to do better – and this bill represents that big step forward.”
Assemblywoman Sheila Oliver (D-Essex), Assemblyman Reed Gusciora (D-Mercer) and Assemblywoman Mila Jasey (D-Essex) also sponsor the bill.
The program is currently funded by employee payroll deductions of about 50 cents per week until they reach the yearly maximum contribution of $26.08, according to a news release from the Assembly Majority Office. The funding mechanism and deduction amount would not change under the bill
The New Jersey Business & Industry Association urged the Assembly to reject the bill. NJBIA President Michele Siekerka said a fiscal analysis from the Office of Legislative Services determined the program would have cost $236 million in 2016 under the proposed changes, up from the $88.7 million the program actually cost that year.
“Increasing the cost of the program without adjustments to the payroll tax that pays for it all means the fund will soon be depleted as more employees qualify to take a longer leave and receive increased benefit checks,” Siekerka said in a statement. “If this legislation is enacted into law, there’s no doubt the Legislature will look to the business community to keep the fund from going broke.”
New Jersey Policy Perspective, a left-leaning think tank, supports the bill and said just 12 percent of eligible new parents in the state are using the program. The group said the state’s “woefully inadequate wage replacement” of two-thirds of weekly wages makes it impossible for low-income working families to lose one-third of their pay during their time off.
“Improving New Jersey’s paid family leave program will boost the state’s workers, families and businesses,” said NJPP Vice President Jon Whiten. “Updating the wage replacement levels and caps will help ensure many more of the New Jerseyans who pay into this program are able to use it when they need to.”