Workers advocates want to make sure that earned sick time -- which provides employees with one hour of leave for a given number of hours put in on the job -- is a right not a reward. But rather than taking this battle to the State House, and an expected veto from Gov. Chris Christie, they’ve been working at the local level, hoping to build momentum for state action.
Ironically, most business groups say they want a statewide solution, saying that try to comply with a patchwork of regulations will only make doing business in New Jersey more difficult.. Many also believe that some form of sick leave is inevitable and appear willing to discuss the issue.
So far, 12 municipalities have enacted some form of earned sick-time ordinance, with Plainfield becoming the latest earlier this month, joining the state’s four largest cities -- Newark, Jersey City, Paterson, and Elizabeth -- along with Trenton, East Orange, Irvington, Montclair, Bloomfield, and New Brunswick.
Activists expect several other towns to follow suit later this year, with Princeton being the next most likely. They argue that earned sick time is a public health and equity issue. Requiring employers to provide paid time off for sick workers will encourage them to stay home rather than infect coworkers and customers, while also giving low-wage workers a cushion in case they have to stay home and nurse other family members.
Thus far, the only business group that has endorsed mandated sick time is the New Jersey Main Street Alliance, which works with progressive organizations like New Jersey Citizen Action and Working Families to enact what it sees as pro-worker legislation.
The state’s largest business groups -- the Chamber of Commerce, New Jersey Restaurant and Hospitality Association, and New Jersey Business and Industry Association --say that earned sick time would add to the long list of expenses that make running small businesses difficult. It could create scheduling issues and require businesses to spend more on payroll to ensure they are covered in case of illnesses.
So far, 11 of the 12 ordinances follow the same model. Businesses are required to provide all workers with one hour of paid sick leave for every 30 hours worked up to a maximum of 40 hours. The ordinance covers both full- and part-time workers and all businesses.
New Brunswick’s ordinance, which took effect in January, does not cover employees who work fewer than 20 hours or per-diem nurses. And it gives businesses black-out dates on which they can require workers who call in sick to provide documentation.
Senate Bill S-799, which was endorsed by a 7-6 vote of the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee, would cover all businesses, but would allow employees at businesses with more than 10 employees to accrue up to 72 hours of sick leave. The bill, sponsored by Sen. Loretta Weinberg (D-Bergen) and Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester), has yet to be scheduled for a full floor vote. An Assembly version A-1446, has been referred to the Assembly Labor Committee. It is sponsored by Democrats Pamela Lampitt, Raj Mukherji, Jerry Green, Benjie Wimberly, and Shavonda Sumter.
The Plainfield City Council approved its ordinance March 14 by a 5-1 vote. Plainfield Mayor Adrian Mapp called the ordinance, which will take effect in July, important for “the health and safety and well-being of the entire community.”
Jeanne Cretella, president of Landmark Hospitality, which owns the Liberty House in Jersey City and restaurants in Warren, Whitehouse, and West Windsor, opposes the mandate as unnecessary and intrusive. She is also chairwoman of the state restaurant association and says that if small businesses are going to face a mandate, then a state law that sets the same rules for all businesses in all communities would be best.
“Operationally and administratively, it becomes burdensome to monitor different ordinances in different towns,” she said. “One statewide policy would seem to make more sense.”
Cretella’s colleague in the restaurant association, Francis Schott, owner of Stage Left and Catherine Lombardi’s in New Brunswick, agreed.
“This is coming about because a lot of people really want this,” he said, “but the state has to act and pre-empt this.”
Craig Garcia, campaign director for Working Families, said it is unlikely that a state mandate could be put in place before 2018 -- after a new governor is elected. He said the five Democrats expected to enter the race --Sweeney (Gloucester), Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop, businessman Phil Murphy, state Sen. Raymond Lesniak (Union) and Assemblyman John Wisniewski (Middlesex) -- are all on record supporting the legislation. Earned sick leave is also supported by Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto (D-Hudson).
Garcia said a state law is a long-term goal, but the focus has to be on municipal ordinances to ensure that workers get covered and “to call attention to the issue and to help push for a state bill.”
“There was a real grassroots movement that built up around the issue (in Plainfield and Elizabeth),” he said.
Mapp said he would welcome a state law, but the “mere fact that the state is thinking about doing something is not a reason for us not to move forward.”
Crestella and Schott said the New Brunswick ordinance may offer a workable compromise, but Garcia is doubtful. The blackout days provided by the New Brunswick ordinance prevent someone in the back line of a restaurant -- a line cook or busboy, for instance -- from calling in sick on the restaurant’s busiest days.
“This gives the business owner some reasonable protections and the ability to insure we are covered and have some check on abuses of the system, just like this acts as a check on the employer,” Schott said.
Jennifer Bradshaw, public information officer for New Brunswick, said the ordinance was a collaborative effort put together over several months with input from businesses and the two local hospitals.
“We wanted to make sure we had an ordinance that would suit our town,” she said, “as opposed to something that suits other communities.”
The exemptions and documentation requirements were an effort to “take everybody into consideration,” she said. “We had to make sure we looked at everybody and that it would work for everybody.”
Crestella said restaurants face challenges that other businesses do not. There is less cross-training -- servers cannot easily replace line-cooks – so the impact of someone calling in sick can be devastating.
“When I walk into the restaurant to open it at noon and at 11:30 a.m. I get a call saying my sauté chef isn’t coming in, there are not many people who can jump into his or her slot,” she said. “The burden ultimately falls not just on the owner, but on the team that is trying to get through the shift.”
“We don’t want anyone who is sick to work,” she said. “That is a basic rule of thumb that any restaurateur lives by. You don’t want sick employees in your restaurant.”
But paying people when they are out sick becomes costly, because the restaurant has to pay both the sick worker and his or her replacement -- sometimes at time-and-a-half, she said. She estimates that the ordinance has cost about $50,000 at Liberty House during its first year.
Schott said he thinks the compromise is a good one, though he adds that he still would prefer that no mandate be put in place. There are employers who “treat workers as commodities,” and employees who see sick days as free time off, he said.
“You have good actors and bad actors on both sides, but I still think there is no need to address this by law,” he said.
Dean Smith, who runs Kazams toy store in Princeton and is active with the Main Street Alliance, disagrees. He said providing paid sick time is good business and that local ordinances help level the playing field between those who view their employees as assets and those who find reasons not to offer the benefit.
“I feel like it is the obligation of businesses to make sure their employees are adequately taken care of,” he said. “We don’t want folks who are working to be struggling to get by.”
He agreed that a statewide bill would be best, but “this has to start somewhere.” And he questions the motivations of those who keep pushing a statewide solution when the politics obviously do not favor it.
“A lot of the folks who have been criticizing, they know it has little chance at the state level with this governor,” Smith said. “But it is something we really need.”
If a worker is sick and misses a work day, “it is going to make it a struggle for them,” Smith said, so to “push it aside because of small concerns about implementation is irresponsible.”
Garcia said the New Brunswick compromises leave part-timers without protection and that the goal should be “to cover everyone.” He said “blackout days” may sound reasonable, but they create pressure on workers to come to work when they are sick, because they send a signal that they are priority days for the employer.
“We want to protect them from feeling like they have to come in,” Garcia said. Requiring documentation ignores how most people behave when they first get sick, he said. “If you come down with a stomach bug, the first thing you do is have some tea, rest and then you see if you feel better the next day. You don’t go right to the doctor.”
And for low-wage workers, seeking documentation will mean spending money they might not have, he said.
“The low-wage immigrant workers – like those in Princeton or in New Brunswick – the immigrant single mothers, they are the ones that work two, three jobs and are cobbling together part-time work in childcare and food service, who will be helped by this,” Garcia said. “But if the restaurant association gets its way, their jobs will be exempt.”