By David Levinsky
New Jersey's family leave program will expand to allow workers who miss time to care for a newborn child or sick family member to collect more of their pay and remain on leave longer.
Gov. Phil Murphy signed legislation expanding the program into law Tuesday, saying the changes to the decade-old program will allow it to help more workers and strengthen the state's overall economy.
"When we honor and protect workers we strengthen our economy. When you allow workers to take care of themselves and loved ones, we strengthen families," Murphy said during a ceremony at the JFK Library in Piscataway.
New Jersey is one of only five states that offer paid family leave through employee payroll deductions, and the expansion marks the first significant change to New Jersey's program since it was created in 2009.
Workers were eligible to take off six weeks to care for a newborn or newly adopted child, or to take care of a sick child, parent or spouse, and receive up to two-thirds of their pay, capped at 53 percent of the statewide average weekly wage or $650 a week.
Under the new law, the permitted paid time off would double to 12 weeks and the benefit would increase to 85 percent of their pay and the cap would rise to 70 percent of the statewide average, or about $860 a week.
Workers will also be permitted to take up to 56 days of intermittent leave within a 12-month period under the new law and eligibility for leave is also being expanded to include caring for siblings, in-laws, grandparents, grandchildren and other blood relatives , as well as other close friends who are considered the equivalent of a family member. Victims of domestic violence or sexual assault are also now eligible for the paid leave, as are family members who care for them.
The boosted benefits are expected to take effect in July next year and could require the payroll tax paid by workers to increase in order to support the expansion.
Currently the tax is 0.08 percent of the first $34,400 wages, up to about $28. But the new law will expand the deduction to the first $131,000 in wages. The new rate will be calculated based on that change and the funds the program is projected to need.
The new law also eliminates a one-week waiting period for the payment of family leave benefits and expands protections for workers who take leave to companies with 30 or more employees, rather than the current threshold of 50 or more.
Business advocates opposed the expansion, arguing that while employers do not pay the tax that funds the leave that it is still a mandate that forces them to pay more overtime to cover for workers on extended leave or hire replacements. They argue the expansion, plus the state's rising minimum wage and new requirement that all workers receive sick time hurts businesses ability to compete in a high-cost state.
Murphy and other supporters countered that workers deserve protections and the economy ultimately benefits.
"A stronger, more secure middle class, working families in this state, the better it is for them and the better it is for those who employ them," the governor said. "There's a confidence, there's an increase in productivity."
Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin, D-19th of Fords, said the expansion would allow more workers to take advantage of the program, which advocates claimed was underutilized because the benefits weren't enough.
"Today we send a very clear message that family matters, that family is important. And that the best way for people to demonstrate they care about their family is to be there when they're needed the most," Coughlin said.
Senate President Stephen Sweeney, D-3rd of West Deptford, was unable to attend the ceremony but released a statement saying the new law would set an example for the rest of the nation to follow.
"Paid leave can ease financial burdens and provide peace of mind for working families at critical times in their lives. Caring for a newborn child or a loved one with a serious illness can be a real challenge for those who can't afford to lose their paychecks for an extended amount of time," said Sweeney, who spearheaded the drive to create the paid family leave law in 2009. He also championed expanding benefits in 2017 when legislation was approved by lawmakers but vetoed by then Gov. Chris Christie.
(c)2019 Burlington County Times, Willingboro, N.J.