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Newark City Council Nears Vote on Paid Sick-Time Ordinance

pamela lampitt
Assemblywoman Pamela R. Lampitt (D-Burlington and Camden)

With Newark poised to join Jersey City in requiring local companies in 2014 to provide earned, paid sick days for employees, several legislators and activists say they want the state to follow suit.

The Newark City Council continued work Wednesday on an ordinance set for a January 8 vote that would require companies in the state’s largest city to provide up to five paid sick days a year to workers.

If passed, workers would earn one hour of paid sick time for every 30 hours worked and would be able to use their sick time for their own or a family member’s illness. The ordinance, which would make Newark the seventh city in the country to mandate paid sick days, would cover most of city’s low-wage workforce, including fast-food workers, homecare employees, childcare workers, and airport support personnel. It could go into effect beginning in May.

The Jersey City ordinance, which passed in September and takes effect January 24, requires companies with 10 or more workers to provide up to five paid sick days per year earned in the same fashion as the Newark proposal. Companies with nine or fewer employees are required to provide up to five unpaid sick days.

A state bill, A-4125, introduced by Assembly members Pamela R. Lampitt (D-Camden) and Thomas Giblin (D-Passaic) in May, would provide between five and nine days to employees, though the bill is not expected to be voted on before the end of the current legislative session. Lampitt says a revised bill will be introduced when the new Legislature convenes. Incoming Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto (D-Hudson) has said on several occasions that he supports a statewide sick-time rule.

Working While Sick

Advocates say requiring paid sick time will aid low-income workers who often are left with a choice of working through an illness or foregoing pay with the potential that they will be penalized by their employer with further lost hours or by possibly being terminated. Organizations representing the business community, however, say that mandated sick time would be costly to businesses, especially at a time when other new regulations are taking effect, such as a state minimum wage hike and the insurance provisions of the federal Affordable Care Act.

There are 1.2 million New Jersey workers who do not receive sick-time benefits, or about 38 percent of the total workforce, according to the Center for Women and Work at Rutgers University.

A position paper released by the center in October that reviewed polling data collected by the Eagleton Center for Public Interest Polling found that 55 percent of Latino workers lacked paid sick days, compared with 34 percent of whites and 33 percent of blacks. In addition, 44 percent of workers earning less than $25,000 a year and 53 percent of those earning between $25,000 and $50,000 are also without paid sick time.

According to the polling data, many work while sick because they cannot afford an unpaid day off, fear for their jobs, or are concerned that there is too much work to do. More than half of Latino workers, according to the poll, said they could not afford to take time off, and about 40 percent were concerned with getting bad reviews or being fired. More than 40 percent of blacks and Asians reported the same fears.

The Institute for Women’s Research, a Washington-based research and advocacy group, issued a report Wednesday that estimated that the Newark ordinance would require employers to pay about $8.5 million in sick-time to employees, but that it could yield about $13 million annually in savings from reduced employee turnover, along with $1.1 million in health-cost savings to employees and about $1 million to the community at large in savings on emergency room and charity-care costs.

Analilia Mejia, an organizer with SEIU 32BJ, a union representing low-wage service workers, said the population most likely to be helped by earned sick time is the most vulnerable workers. They are “not only making poverty wages,” she said, they find themselves “in a situation in which they can’t so much as take a day off to care for themselves or a sick child or a sick parent or a grandparent because it means them not making ends meet that month or losing the tenuous grasp they have on their livelihood.”

SEIU 32BJ is part of the NJ Time to Care coalition, which includes other unions and organizations either representing or working on behalf of low-wage employees.

“Losing a day’s work or losing a day’s pay” for a low-wage worker, Mejia said, “can mean less food on the table, not making rent, or not being able to afford the bus fare to be able to get to work. It throws everything into a tailspin.”

Michael Egenton, senior vice president for governmental relations for the NJ Chamber of Commerce, said businesses are sympathetic to the needs of workers. However, he said workplace rules like mandated sick time can harm low-wage workers by increasing business costs and leading to the elimination of jobs.

Businesses, he said, have a limited amount of resources. If they now have to pay workers who are not at work, they're likely to cut elsewhere, which could include reducing work hours or the number of employees on the payroll.

Stresses on Small Businesses

In addition, the mandated sick time in Newark and Jersey City come on top of a weak economy, an increased minimum wage and new costs associated with implementing the federal Affordable Care Act.

“The new minimum wage is a cost that businesses already have to deal with,” he said. “That is compounded by the costs of Superstorm Sandy -- some businesses are dealing with that and some are dealing with the overall economy -- and now you have mandated sick-leave proposals. That will compound what a business owner has to deal with.”

One additional concern, Egenton said, is that mandated sick time is being rolled out town by town. That pits municipalities against one other and is not an efficient way of managing public policy, he said.

“Public policy needs to be addressed at the state level and to have all the stakeholders there and have an appropriate discussion and debate on the merits,” he said. “When you do issues like that you are pitting municipality against municipality and, if a business has the ability to have mobility, if it is frustrated with any city or town and it has the ability to move to a contiguous municipality or further away or out of state, it will.”

Newark City Councilman Anibal Ramos Jr., who represents the city’s North Ward, dismissed the argument. Many of the jobs that will be covered are not the kind that can be moved, he said, and the city’s businesses already must comply with local regulations with which they may not be happy.

Fulop agreed, saying that other cities that have passed sick-time rules -- San Francisco, Portland, Seattle, Washington, D.C., and New York, in addition to the state of Connecticut -- have not seen a negative impact economically.

“My prediction,” he said, “is that Jersey City will lead the state in job creation.”

Fulop said the issue is one of fairness, especially for low-wage workers, minorities, and women.

Ramos said the benefits of paid sick days reach beyond the employees. Businesses benefit from more productive employees and the community benefits because sick workers are not spreading illness.

“When you are dealing with daycare workers, seniors, restaurant workers, the public health concerns are very important,” he said.

Mejia, of SEIU, said that going to work when they are sick could endanger the public health.

“Do you want to have a sick worker serve your food or care for your child or your elderly grandparents?” she asks.

For Assemblywoman Lampitt, the answer is "No."

“I think it is partly a public health bill,” she said. “Too many people go to work when they are not feeling well. I think that when there are signs of illness, people should take precautionary measures when they can. Employees without sick leave have no options.

Sen. Loretta Weinberg (D-Bergen), sponsor of the Senate version of the bill, said a statewide bill is important -- for workers and New Jersey residents, but also for the business community.

While a statewide bill would be good, Fulop said he thinks it “the best strategy to have places like Jersey City and Newark lead the charge” because there is “a lot of inaction at the state level,” so “you do it on a municipal level and do it from the bottom up.”

He said he has talked with other mayors and he is hopeful that other communities “of significant size” will follow suit so that “a majority of the state is covered because the urban areas are covered.” At that point, he said, the Legislature will have to act.

Ramos agreed.

“Paid sick leave is something that cities across America are looking at,” Ramos said, adding that he is hopeful that, with Jersey City and Newark adopting this, it “will create a bit of momentum for our state representatives and the governor’s office to consider this.”

The current, municipally-based approach, does “create momentum,” Weinberg said, but it also creates a question of fairness that makes it even more imperative that a statewide bill be passed.

“I don’t think that the best way to address an issue like this is town by town,” she said. “I believe this needs state action and one standard that applies to all of the residents and all of the businesses, one that applies to all of our citizens.”

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