Though they disagree on some key details, the top Democrats in the Senate and Assembly plan to prioritize the expansion of New Jersey’s paid family leave program over the next month.

Senate President Stephen Sweeney and Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto both seek to double the number of weeks a person could receive the benefit, from six to 12 weeks. They’d also like to boost the weekly payment, which now maxes out at $633, though are seeking different caps.

Sweeney, whose proposal envisions a maximum benefit of around $800, said the program is only 11 percent utilized.

“And that’s two-fold. One, it’s because a lot of people aren’t aware of it. And two, it’s because even though we offer it, I can’t afford that kind of pay cut, so I have to go back to work,” Sweeney said. “So we want to make it so it’s a little more workable, a little more tangible for families in a time of crisis.”

Prieto is calling for caps of $851 for people with incomes up to 200 percent of the federal poverty level, currently $49,200 for a family of four, or $932 for people with incomes above that threshold.

“So it will be a meaningful amount for people to be able to take advantage of it and use this as it was really meant to be,” Prieto said.

New Jersey is one of three states with a paid family leave program, along with California and Rhode Island. New York adds one next year.

The benefit was used more than 32,000 times in 2016, with nearly 27,000 of those instances, approximately 84 percent, for bonding with a new child. Close to 5,300 paid leaves were approved for people to care for a sick family member.

Prieto’s legislation, introduced this week, seeks to go further than Sweeney’s plan by expanding eligibility to grandparents, grandchildren, siblings and parents-in-law and allowing leave to be taken to care for victims of domestic violence or sexual assault, among other unique wrinkles.

Dena Mottola Jaborska, associate director of New Jersey Citizen Action, said the Assembly plan would also include workers at small companies and people who are self-employed.

“It does a lot to open the program up, we hope to everyone. That is our goal – to have a paid leave program here in the state that works for everyone,” Mottola Jaborska said.

“We applaud especially that the proposed legislation allows those who are self-employed to opt into the program,” said Jerome Montes, business representative for the New Jersey Main Street Alliance. “In this gig economy, we see an increasing number of entrepreneurs who are self-employed. Really, all of Main Street should benefit from this program.”

Advocates for the plan say it wouldn’t increase employee contributions into the paid-leave program, which maintains a surplus. Employers don’t pay into the program. Workers pay around 50 cents a week, capped at $32.

Because revenues had far surpassed costs when the program was first established, a law was passed in 2009 setting the tax rate each year at a level needed to raise enough money to cover 120 percent of the coming year’s expected benefits, plus administrative costs, minus the fund’s balance.

That had the effect of lowering the tax, which is still lower in 2017 than it was in 2010. However, if benefits were to increase, the tax would likely increase after 2018.

Workers receive around $89 million a year in family leave benefits through the state program currently, and the program is projected to end 2017 with a balance of around $29 million.

Gov. Chris Christie said he couldn’t offer an opinion on the idea, which he said hasn’t been brought to his attention, because he doesn’t know what it would cost.

Prieto said he hoped Christie would “have his heart in the right place and do the right thing,” perhaps as a way to improve his approval rating. Sweeney said he hopes Christie will have an open mind and notes there’s an election coming.

“And if the governor doesn’t support it, there’s another administration coming in six months that I think would be if it’s a Democrat administration and maybe even a Republican administration would embrace it,” Sweeney said.

Business groups are responding cautiously to the idea of expanding paid leave.

The New Jersey Business and Industry Association said it is always concerned about the impact such proposals have its members.

“While it is important that employees have the flexibility to take leave for family reasons, potential expansion of the current law must always take into account our members’ ability to perform vital functions with fewer staff and also the potential additional costs involved for those business owners who may now just be operating at the margins,” the NJBIA said in a statement.

More From WPG Talk Radio 95.5 FM