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Jersey City Pushes To Pass First Required Paid Sick Leave Bill In NJ

Mayor Steven Fulop calls potential passage 'significant' for chances for adopting such policies statewide.

Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop
Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop

Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop’s push for a paid sick leave ordinance could have an impact far beyond the boundaries of the state's second-largest city.

Speaking Monday at a City Hall press conference, two days before his proposal for mandatory sick time for the city’s private-sector workers is introduced to the city council, Fulop claimed the plan proposes a policy change that should be adopted locally, and considered statewide.

“We view it as a basic human dignity type of issue. It’s a women’s issue, it’s a family issue, it’s a worker issue,” Fulop said, flanked by supporters of an ordinance that would make Jersey City the first municipality in the Garden State to require paid sick leave. “Hopefully, it’s replicated throughout the state in the near future.”

The proposed law would require companies with 10 or more employees to provide up to five paid sick days a year. Businesses with fewer employees would be required to provide up to five unpaid sick days. Workers would earn one hour of sick time for every 30 hours worked as soon as they begin employment, but will not be able to use the sick time until after 90 days on the job.

Fulop emphasized that the Jersey City bill is no “giveaway.” If an employee does not use the paid sick days provided, there is no rollover mechanism, nor do they get compensated for the time if they leave the company.

Several cities nationwide, including San Francisco, Seattle and Washington, D.C., as well the state of Connecticut, have passed paid sick-leave laws.

The cities that frame north and South Jersey have a mixed record regarding the initiative. Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter vetoed a paid sick-leave bill earlier this year. New York City ultimately passed its bill earlier this year despite Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s veto.

The New York law, which takes effect next year, is less magnanimous than the Jersey City proposal. It requires businesses with 20 or more employees to offer paid sick leave; the law will include companies with 15 or more workers the following year. New York exempts manufacturers with 50 or more employees from paid sick leave regulations: Jersey City would not give the same exemption.

The proposed paid sick-leave bill is not without its detractors.

“Small businesses don’t think that the government should interfere with running their businesses,” said Laurie Ehlbeck, state director of the National Federation of Independent Business. “Most of our members offer some sort of paid time to their employees, but they do it on the basis of what they can afford. This ordinance in Jersey City would make things inflexible, if they have to offer a certain amount of time. It could be very costly. There is a finite amount of money that goes into running a business -- when an expense goes up, something else is going to hurt.”

Phil Kirschner, president of the New Jersey Business and Industry Association, said the potential passage of the Jersey City bill “makes no sense at all.”

“To have paid sick leave now, on top of a possible minimum wage increase, as well as increases from the new health insurance law and unemployment insurance taxes, is really piling on small businesses,” Kirschner said.

“These are increased costs at a time when the economy is still struggling. Most of the businesses we represent are not back to where they were in 2007,” he added.

But Gordon MacInnes, president of the liberal think tank New Jersey Policy Perspective, disagreed.

“It’s beyond argument that not having to face the decision of whether you go to work with perhaps an infectious disease, or stay home and lose your income, should not be the kind of choice that workers should have to make,” MacInnes said.

Phyllis Salowe-Kaye, executive director of the watchdog group New Jersey Citizen Action, pointed to the proposed law as a way to boost business, not block it.

“Giving workers financial security by allowing them to take paid leave to deal with their own illnesses, or to care for a sick loved one, not only improves outcomes for children and families, but also benefits businesses by decreasing turnover and raising worker morale,” she said.

Salowe-Kaye also referred to studies that demonstrated earned sick day bills were not detrimental to the local economies of the cities where the measures were adopted, including San Francisco, which adopted its bill in 2007.

Karen White, director of the Work and Family Programs at Rutgers University’s Center for Women and Work, concurred, specifically noting the favorable conclusions reached by a 2011 study conducted by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research.

“The majority of employers reported no negative impact on profitability,” White said. “In fact, their research showed the economy in San Francisco fared better than the economies in the surrounding area. I don’t know that you can directly attribute that to the availability of earned sick days, but certainly earned sick days did not create a negative impact.”

On the heels of Jersey City’s initiative, Salowe-Kaye said she was meeting this week with Newark city officials in the hope that a paid sick leave bill will be introduced in New Jersey’s largest city as early as next week.

“We’re hoping that Newark’s bill will be even stronger,” she said.

State Assemblywoman Pamela Lampitt (D-Camden), who introduced a bill in May that would require companies to provide at least 40 paid sick-hours a year, believes that the Jersey City initiative could move the statewide measure along.

“Major cities can have a strong impact upon state legislation. Look at what happened in New York and Philadelphia,” said Lampitt, who co-sponsored the bill with State Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg (D-Bergen). “If Mayor Fulop is able get his council to support this piece of legislation, I think it would help with the momentum in getting this done statewide.”

Referring to the 30,000 Jersey City private-sector workers and 1.2 million workers statewide who don’t get paid sick days, Fulop said, “What we’re trying to do is create economic fairness and opportunity for families, recognizing the fact that sometimes in the course of a year, things may happen. We’re allowing them to earn time. [Passage of the Jersey City bill] will be very, very significant. If it works in a city the size of Jersey City, it can work in much smaller municipalities.”

Mark J. Bonamo is a journalist based in the Ironbound section of Newark.

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