N.J. Family Leave Act change could expand job protection for workers at small companies

On Monday, the Assembly passed a measure expanding current law to include job protections for workers who take family leave at smaller businesses.

File photo: New Jersey State Capitol building in Trenton. (Alan Tu/WHYY)

File photo: New Jersey State Capitol building in Trenton. (Alan Tu/WHYY)

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Under current law, New Jersey employees can take up to 12 weeks of time off to bond with a newborn baby, adopt or foster a child or care for a sick relative. The Family Leave Act guarantees employees job safety, as long as there are at least 30 employees in the workplace.

The Assembly on Monday passed a measure expanding the law to include smaller companies and establishments. If it becomes law, the measure will guarantee employment reinstatement for workers taking family leave in companies with 20 or more employees. One year later, the employment reinstatement guarantee would extend to companies with 10 or more workers, and 12 months after that the threshold would be reduced again, to 5 employees.

New Jersey’s largest business group is not thrilled.

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Elissa Frank, vice president of government affairs at the New Jersey Business and Industry Association, said the law would be especially detrimental for mom-and-pop businesses.

“Putting a mandate on them to hold that job open when the person is out on leave makes it just unmanageable,” she said.

She said if an employee goes out on family leave and a temporary worker becomes a good fit for the role, and the company wants to retain them permanently, they won’t be able to under the new update.

Eric Richard, the legislative director for the New Jersey AFL-CIO, said modifying the Family Leave Act to cover employees in smaller companies is a matter of fairness.

“Every employee pays for this benefit, there’s a payroll deduction that comes out of every worker’s paycheck that funds the paid family leave program,” he said.

Richard said it makes no sense that approximately 1.5 million workers in smaller companies in the Garden State are afraid to take advantage of family leave “because they have no job protection, employers are allowed to fire those people.”

Frank, of the business association, said the proposed law would empower  an employee in a smaller company with legal recourse in case they lose their job because they went on family leave.That could bankrupt micro-businesses, she said.

She said another complicating factor is the Temporary Workers Bill of Rights, signed into law last summer, which requires employers to pay temporary workers  the same salary as the permanent employee who is out on leave.

Richard pointed out employees of smaller companies can already take paid family leave.

“This bill doesn’t extend the paid family leave program to anyone, the only thing it does is protect their job if they choose to use the benefit,” he said.

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He stressed workers shouldn’t have to choose between caring for children or sick loved ones and keeping their job.

“That’s not in anyone’s interest,” he said. “If you’re forcing that employee to come back to work with a threat of losing their job, that employee is not going to be a productive employee, neither the employer nor the employee is going to benefit from that situation.”

He added many small business owners have said they are already making accommodations..

“If that’s the case then what’s the harm in enacting the law for perhaps a very small number of businesses that aren’t going to work it out with their employees,” he said.

The legislation must still be approved by the state Senate Labor Committee before it is put up for a vote in the full Upper House.

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