Assembly panel backs expansion of family leave job protections

Bill would eventually extend job reinstatement guarantees to firms with as few as five workers

By: - February 8, 2024 4:40 pm

Industry groups worry about the family leave bill’s impact on the state’s smallest businesses, while supporters say the bill should go further. (Getty Images)

An Assembly panel approved a bill expanding job protections in New Jersey’s family leave program over the objections of industry groups who worried about the bill’s impact on the state’s smallest businesses and plaudits from advocates who praised the bill but said it should go further.

The legislation would expand job reinstatement guarantees for workers who draw state family temporary disability leave benefits to employers with as few as five workers, from the 30 provided for under current law. The figure would move from 30 to five in two years.

The bill’s supporters said the change is needed to address a gross public policy sin — that workers whose payroll taxes entirely fund the state’s family leave program can’t claim benefits without risking their jobs.

“In essence, you’re granting an employer the ability to fire an employee for taking a benefit they’re paying for,” said Eric Richard, legislative director for the New Jersey AFL-CIO. “That’s the existing structure.”

The bill would immediately drop the employee threshold to 20 upon being signed into law. That bar would lower to 10 a year later and would fall to five a year after that.

Other advocates said the bill should be expanded to reduce employee eligibility requirements. Under provisions of the current law that the bill leaves untouched, employees must have worked at least 20 weeks, earning no less than $283 weekly, or earn at least $14,200 in the first four of the five quarters preceding their benefits claim.

“No one in New Jersey should have to decide between caring for an ill family member and maintaining their employment,” said Peter Chen, a senior policy analyst at progressive think tank New Jersey Policy Perspective. “I think that’s exactly the sentiment and the right goal, but this bill, unfortunately, only gets us a small part of the way there.”

Family leave bill misses opportunity, leaving behind 1M workers who need job protections

Business groups cautioned the state’s smallest employers might not be able to bear the burden.

“Larger companies have more staff and are able to provide coverage if someone needs to take time off to care for a family member,” said Amirah Hussain, director of government relations for the New Jersey Chamber of Commerce. “Most small businesses are not financially equipped to deal with the increased costs that are associated with hiring and training a temporary worker that will likely be asked to leave once the employee returns.”

Other business advocates added the policy would put New Jersey at a competitive disadvantage with some of its peers from employers’ perspectives.

Family leave job protections in New York and Connecticut are not restricted by employer size, and Delaware’s program applies those safeguards to employers with at least 10 workers.

Pennsylvania has no family leave program, though the federal Family and Medical Leave Act provides some protections for unpaid leave. The federal protections apply only to firms with at least 50 employees.

“An employer in New Jersey will see this and be like, ‘Just another mandate that’s coming up from the government that’s really difficult to comply with.’ What are they going to do? They’re going to go across the border to Pennsylvania,” said Elissa Frank, vice president of government affairs for the New Jersey Business and Industry Association.

In 2021, firms that moved from one state to another had an average of 3.7 employees, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

But others noted any disruptions are likely to be minimal given just how few New Jerseyans use the program.

“Last year there were 67,000 eligible family leave insurance claims, paid family leave claims, in New Jersey out of 4.6 million employees,” Chen said. “This is not a program where most businesses, particularly small businesses, are going to experience somebody taking family leave during a given year.”

The Assembly Appropriations Committee approved the measure in a vote that fell strictly along party lines, clearing the bill for a full vote on the Assembly floor scheduled to take place Monday.

It’s expected to clear that hurdle — it won narrow Assembly approval in the previous legislative session — but its prospects in the Senate are murkier. At present, the bill has no Senate companion, and Senate President Nicholas Scutari (D-Union) in December said the bill might be too much for the state’s smallest businesses to bear.


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Nikita Biryukov
Nikita Biryukov

Nikita Biryukov most recently covered state government and politics for the New Jersey Globe. His tenure there included revelatory stories on marijuana legalization, voting reform and Rep. Jeff Van Drew's decamp to the Republican Party. Earlier, he worked as a freelancer for The Home News Tribune and The Press of Atlantic City.