New Jersey lawmakers eye expanding job-protected family leave to small businesses

By: - November 30, 2023 12:05 pm

Lawmakers advanced a bill to expand job-protected family leave to businesses with five or more staff, down from 30 under current state law. (Getty Images)

Lawmakers advanced a bill Thursday that would expand New Jersey’s Family Leave Act to small businesses with five or more employees, drawing applause from workers’ rights advocates and objections from business groups.

Under current law, businesses that employ 30 or more people must give workers up to 12 weeks of leave during a 24-month period to care for a sick relative or child who was recently born, adopted, or fostered, and allow them to return to their same job.

The Assembly’s labor committee approved the bill, with Assemblyman Parker Space (R-Warren) voting no without comment.

The initial version of the bill, which Assemblywomen Annette Quijano (D-Union) and Verlina Reynolds-Jackson (D-Mercer) introduced in February, would have extended job-protected family leave to all businesses statewide, but legislators amended it Thursday to exclude businesses with four or fewer employees.

Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin (D-Middlesex) was the first to urge committee members to advance the bill.

“It’s good for families and good for businesses when workers are afforded the respect and the dignity to care for their families,” Coughlin said. “No one in New Jersey should have to decide between caring for an ill family member and maintaining their employment. No parent in our state should have to worry about losing their job if they take time to bond with their child.”

Workers’ rights advocates echoed that sentiment, although many asked legislators to extend it to all employers, not just those with five or more staff.

Yarrow Willman-Cole, representing the New Jersey Time to Care Coalition, reminded lawmakers that current law allows job-protected leave only if an employee has worked at a business for at least a year, and at least 1,000 hours in that year.

“This bill does not make any changes to those aspects of eligibility, and that will leave out more low-wage workers of color who are more likely to work for small employers, work part-time jobs, and work for multiple employers or switch jobs more frequently,” Willman-Cole said. “Ensuring universal job protection for New Jersey workers is an issue of equity.”

Peter Chen of progressive think tank New Jersey Policy Perspective also urged legislators to reconsider those requirements. About 200,000 people work for companies that employ less than five workers and will be barred from job-protected family leave under Thursday’s amendment, he added.

“No one in New Jersey, regardless of the size of their employer, regardless of whether they met an arbitrary years or hours threshold, should be denied that right, as a complete matter,” Chen said. “So any exemptions, whether it’s five, whether it’s three, whether it’s 10, those are all keeping some folks out of the system.”

Eric Richard, legislative director at the AFL-CIO of New Jersey, called the bill “a strong step forward” but also urged lawmakers to dump the amendment excluding the state’s smallest businesses.

“There’s 13 states that have job protection. Nine of them have job protection for every single employer, so their threshold is zero,” Richard said.

Business groups argued the opposite.

Eileen Kean, state director of the National Federation of Independent Business, expressed concerns about the bill’s “legal ramifications” and called on lawmakers to amend the bill to exclude businesses with up to 10 employees.

“What happens when an employee comes back, and a small business owner who only has nine employees and losing an employee represents more than 10% of his workforce? What happens if the same job can’t be guaranteed? Does that mean now that employer is susceptible to a lawsuit?” Kean said. “We appreciate employees having rights, but we also want to look at that equation. And what happens on one side of that equation impacts the financial resources of the overall business.”

The Senate version of the bill has yet to be heard in that body’s labor committee. The current legislative session ends Jan. 9.

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Dana DiFilippo
Dana DiFilippo

Dana DiFilippo comes to the New Jersey Monitor from WHYY, Philadelphia’s NPR station, and the Philadelphia Daily News, a paper known for exposing corruption and holding public officials accountable. Prior to that, she worked at newspapers in Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, and suburban Philadelphia and has freelanced for various local and national magazines, newspapers and websites. She lives in Central Jersey with her husband, a photojournalist, and their two children.

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