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Does Paid Sick Leave Have Healthy Chance of Approval in New Jersey?

Outcome of efforts to enact local ordinances may determine prospects for statewide law

paid sick leave
From left, Essex County Freeholder Brendan Gill, Marcia Marley of BlueWave NJ, Analilia Mejia of New Jersey Working Families and Dena Mottola Jaborska of New Jersey Citizen Action review petitions to be submitted in Montclair, where a paid sick leave will be on the November ballot.

Organizers are hoping that efforts to pass paid-sick-leave ordinances at the local level will lend additional momentum to pass a state bill, especially now that Assembly leaders have announced they are planning to move sick-time legislation forward when the Legislature reconvenes in September.

Petition drives in five New Jersey municipalities – Irvington, Montclair, Passaic, Paterson and Trenton – have been successful in putting sick-leave ordinances on the November ballot, meaning that citizens in those towns could enact local rules when they go to the polls. The petitions were filed in the communities on Aug. 4. A sixth community – East Orange – introduced its own sick-leave ordinance last week. If all six ordinances are adopted, it would mean that eight municipalities comprising 11 percent of the state’s population – including the state’s three largest cities – will mandate that businesses provide paid sick leave.

Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto (D-Hudson) announced his support last week for state legislation introduced by Assemblywoman Pamela Lampitt (D-Camden) that would require companies to provide paid sick leave to employees. The bill, A-2354, would require companies with fewer than 10 employees to provide up to five days of paid sick leave and larger companies to provide up to six days of paid sick leave annually. Employees would accrue one hour of paid leave for every 30 hours they worked.

Business groups oppose mandatory paid sick leave, saying it could drive potential employers away from towns that adopt the rules -- or from the state, if the Lampitt bill is approved. They also are especially concerned that the local ordinances will create a patchwork of regulations.

Organizers with NJ Time to Care, a coalition of pro-labor and consumer groups, spearheaded the petition drives in the five communities and worked with East Orange on its efforts. They say workers need access to sick leave and that they are prepared to work on a town-by-town basis. They also said that support at the local level could translate to support for legislation at the state level.

Political science professors who study New Jersey politics said local efforts, if they are successful and do not result in job loss, could be viewed as local policy “laboratories.” This, in turn, could increase support from state lawmakers. If local ordinances prove difficult to implement or can be shown to drive away jobs, however, the statewide effort could be stymied.

Jersey City and Newark have already passed sick-leave ordinances. Jersey City’s, which applies to companies with 10 or more workers. It provides up to five sick days, with one hour of sick time earned for every 30 hours worked. Companies with fewer than 10 employees are required to provide up to five unpaid sick days.

The Newark ordinance, which went into effect June 21, calls for sick time to accrue in the same manner as in Jersey City, but it applies to all companies. The proposed ordinances in East Orange, Irvington, Montclair, Passaic, Paterson and Trenton are identical to the Newark rules, according to organizers with Time to Care.

Jersey City, which was the first to adopt the sick-time rules, plans to amend its ordinance in the fall to match Newark’s, according to Mayor Stephen Fulop. The city is talking to staff at the Rutgers University Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy about reviewing the impact of the ordinance, though Fulop says that city employment figures show that it has not had a negative impact on local business.

Laying the groundwork

Ben Dworkin, director of the Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics at Rider University in Lawrence Township, said voters and policymakers aren’t very familiar with mandatory paid-sick leave rules, so local efforts could have an impact.

“The local initiatives effectively are the laboratories for the anything that might happen on the state level,” Dworkin said. “I think if we see successful implementation in smaller municipalities and large cities and everything in between, then it will provide momentum for a statewide law.”

David P. Redlawsk, director of the Eagleton Center for Public Interest Polling at the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University, said the initiatives, because they cover “a large chunk of people” in the state, “create potential pressure on state-level folks.”

There has not been any state-wide polling on the issue, but Redlawsk said the sick-leave rules are likely to have the same kind of support as increasing the state’s minimum wage. The state increased its minimum wage from $7.25 an hour to $8.25 an hour via a constitutional amendment in November that won support of 61 percent of voters.

“Broadly speaking, there is great support for this among individuals,” he said. “It is a lot like the minimum wage. The polling on that had tremendously strong support, even among people who wouldn’t gain from it. There is a general sense that these things are fair to workers.”

Redlawsk said the local efforts “create context and create the environment in which there becomes potential for this going statewide if it is working in these cities.”

That remains a big if, he said, because the studies have not been completed.

“There’s obviously an experiment going on,” he said. “One of the questions that we don’t know the answer to yet is the extent to which businesses in Jersey City are finding it onerous.”

Officials with the New Jersey Chamber of Commerce and the New Jersey Restaurant Association said the Jersey City ordinance has had an impact on business, though the city is citing federal employment statistics to show that job growth in Jersey City has been strong.

“It has a serious effect, on everything from logistics to paperwork and potentially new businesses,” said Marilou Halverson, president of the New Jersey Restaurant Association. “One member had several locations and was looking to open in Jersey City and Newark, but he pulled out because they implemented the paid sick leave rules. That could have been 150 jobs.”

Michael Egenton, senior vice president for government relations for the state Chamber of Commerce, said the sick-time rules are part of a larger set of policies – including the minimum wage increase and new federal healthcare rules – that have been making it more difficult for businesses in the state.

“It is not one issue that is isolated,” he said. “It is multiple issues that add up on that side of the ledger. We need to have tools we can compete with other states to make New Jersey more attractive than other states.

“I’d rather see (businesses open or) stay in New Jersey,” he added. “But if the facility is up in North Jersey, it they are planning to open a new restaurant, they may have some hesitancy opening in Jersey City because of the new requirement.”

Mayor cites job growth in city

Fulop disagrees. He said the city has created 1,500 jobs this year and that its job growth has not been affected by the sick-leave rules. A new Hyatt hotel broke ground on Tuesday in the city, which the mayor in a press release said would create 350 construction jobs, 80 full-time jobs and another 60 part-time jobs. He also said firms such as JPMorgan Chase, RBC, Forbes, Imperial Bag, Nautica and Ahold will be opening in the city.

“We were the first (city in the state) with paid sick leave, and we are outpacing the state, the federal government and every urban area in New Jersey with a declining unemployment rate,” he said in an interview. “That is very encouraging. When you think about our last year, we continue to create jobs and continue to grow and give people an opportunity to move forward.”

Much of the drop in unemployment occurred between June 2013 and January 2014, when the city’s unemployment rate fell from 10.6 percent to 8.3 percent, according to federal statistics provided by the mayor’s office. During the same time period, the state’s rate fell from 8.4 percent to 7.1 percent. Both the state and city rates have continued to fall this year – in June, the state rate was 6.6 percent and Jersey City’s was 7.8 percent.

“What we experienced is the same thing as the other (cities and state) experienced,” he said. Jersey City is now one of eight jurisdictions – in addition to Newark, New York City, Portland, San Francisco, Seattle, Washington, D.C., and the state of Connecticut – to mandate that private employers provide paid sick leave.

“Before we passed this, some business owners said it would have a massive impact on the growth of the local economy,” he said. “We heard everything under the sun, but what we realized, if look at Department of Labor stats, is that Jersey City is out-growing everybody.”

He said the original Jersey City rules, which exempted smaller businesses, were a compromise, but that the city will be moving in the fall to amend its ordinance to match Newark’s.

Dena Mottola Jaborska, director of advocacy and organizing for New Jersey Citizen Action, which is a member of NJ Time to Care, said business concerns are overblown and that much of the opposition comes from chain businesses. She said it is both a workplace and health issue -- sick workers can infect other workers and the consumers they serve, which can have a broader societal cost.

Jaborska said the coalition has two goals in moving the local rules: to provide “more immediate relief for workers” in towns that adopt sick-leave rules and to create momentum for a statewide bill.

“We are creating advocates to come down to city hall and advocate for local ordinances and then will be keeping them involved to have them advocate for the statewide policy,” which is the ultimate goal, she said.

The local efforts may be having some impact.

The Lampitt bill was first introduced last year in a slightly different form, but was never heard by committee. When Prieto became Assembly speaker, however, he said passing paid sick leave statewide was one of his goals. Lampitt reintroduced the bill in February – the earlier version expired at the end of the 2012-2013 legislative session in January – but it has not been scheduled for a hearing.

Two days after the local petitions were filed, however, Prieto announced that the bill would move forward, saying it would “improv(e) morale” for workers and “reduc(e) the spread of illness in the workplace.”

“I support every local effort to adopt this pro-worker policy, but I also feel strongly that this must be a statewide policy that helps all workers,” he said in a press release.

His announcement met criticism from Assembly Republican Leader Jon Bramnick (R-Union), who called it a “costly mandate.”

“Another obstacle to employment is the last thing New Jersey’s economy needs,” he said in a press release. “I have spoken with hundreds of business leaders and they all tell me the same thing. Increasing the cost of doing business makes it difficult for them to hire employees.”

Neither Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester) has not said whether he would post the Senate version of the bill, S-783, sponsored by Sen. Loretta Weinberg (D-Bergen), for a vote. He did not respond to requests for comment.

Gov. Chris Christie has not spoken publicly about the sick-time bill or the local efforts, and his press office did not respond to requests for comment.

Redlawsk of Eagleton said it’s unlikely that Christie would support sick-leave legislation, especially if he is seriously considering a run for national office.

“It is not terribly popular with the national Republicans whose support he is trying to gain,” he said.

Because of that, he said, supporters of paid sick time in New Jersey may “have to wait him out or go through the constitutional process like they did with the minimum wage increase, where it wouldn’t require his signature.”

On the other hand, Sweeneey, who is widely viewed as preparing a run for governor in 2017, may need to support the sick-time bill if he is running for governor to “continue to polish his credentials with labor, who feel he didn’t do right by him in 2011” when he signed onto pension and health-care changes for public workers.

Regardless, opposition from Christie and the business community could make passage of a state bill difficult in the short run.

“For all the talk of doing this at the state level, the time for it may not be now,” Redlawsk said. “It may be the kind of thing that takes a couple of cycles.”

Dworkin, of Rebovich, said it remains “early in the process.”

“There is momentum right now, because on the local level you see this law being passed,” he said. “But we will see. There are still questions: What are the policy concerns being raised by the business community? And are they coming to fruition in these cities? That is the question. If (the local ordinances) are done successfully, it will give supporters much more ammunition.”

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