State Labor Commissioner David Socolow, who supports the bill along with Gov. Corzine, said workers would pay about $33 a year to support the fund.
The length of the paid leave is down from the 10 weeks included in a bill that stalled in the Legislature last session.
For businesses with at least 50 employees, the leave would have to be taken at the same time as the 12 weeks of unpaid leave allowed under the federal Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993. Workers from employers with fewer than 50 employees could get the six weeks of paid leave but their employers would not have to take them back after the leave.
Opponents said a variety of state and federal laws would effectively bar small businesses from dismissing employees under such circumstances and could lead to lawsuits by employees. Some asked that businesses with fewer than 50 employees be excluded from the measure, whose primary sponsor is Senate Majority Leader Stephen M. Sweeney (D., Gloucester).
Among the opponents was Gaytana M. Pino, chief executive officer of Paper & Ribbon Supply Co., a 10-employee firm in Cherry Hill that supplies paper and ink products for computers and business machines.
Pino said state taxes and regulations were making it "increasingly difficult to justify" staying in New Jersey. Paid family leave would offer one more reason to depart, she said - a sentiment echoed by other opponents.
Foes said that small businesses work to accommodate workers' needs but that six weeks off with pay could seriously disrupt their operations.
Sal Risalvato, executive director of the New Jersey Gasoline, Convenience Store and Automotive Association, said the measure would create a "virtual incentive" for employees to take leave.
But one small businessman, J. Kelly Conklin, owner of an architectural woodworking firm in Bloomfield, described the measure as one that would make the state attractive to employees.
"Creating an environment which attracts employees is the best thing this body can do for small businesses," said Conklin.
Supporters said the measure recognizes a changing economy and work environment, and would put New Jersey in the forefront in providing a benefit common in other industrialized nations.
"Who wouldn't want to spend $33 a year to buy an insurance program for their families?" said Charles Wowkanech, president of the New Jersey State AFL-CIO.
Supporters also argued that aiding workers in times of need increases loyalty and productivity.
But Philip Kirschner, head of the New Jersey Business and Industry Association, said the measure would hurt New Jersey when the nation is "either in a recession or great economic slowdown."
Sweeney, who also is a labor union leader, voiced disappointment at the opposition, saying, "Employees aren't slaves."
"When families have to make a decision between having to take care of a loved one and a job, that's just not fair," he said.
Only California has a paid-leave law. Socolow said that based on that state's four years of experience, about 1 percent of New Jersey's work force - or 38,000 people - would claim the benefit annually.
Contact staff writer Joseph Gambardello at 609-989-8990 or email@example.com.
Read the Senate's family-leave bill at http://go.philly.com/FamilyLeaveBill