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Flu Epidemic Gives Urgency to Statewide Sick-Leave Law

State and local officials push for paid sick time as a public-health issue in New Jersey, business leaders want a say because of ‘economic impacts’

Loretta Weinberg
Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg discusses new bill that would require New Jersey companies to provide their employees with earned sick leave.

With Democrat Phil Murphy now in the governor’s office instead of Republican Chris Christie, the stars appear to be aligning for those who’ve been advocating for years for a statewide earned sick-leave law. Adding new urgency to the effort this year, according to advocates, is New Jersey’s ongoing flu epidemic.

Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg appeared with several officials from the state nursing community yesterday to make the case that allowing all workers to earn paid time off is a matter of public health for New Jersey, which is being hit particularly hard by the flu this year.

Weinberg (D-Bergen) introduced a new paid sick-leave bill yesterday, and said she’s working closely with Assembly sponsor Pamela Lampitt (D-Camden). She also laid out an aggressive schedule to get the legislation to Murphy’s desk, possibly in a matter of weeks.

“This is not only about family values for the people we want to cover with earned sick leave, it’s about healthcare for the people of New Jersey,” Weinberg said during a news conference in the State House.

Christie stood in the way

While Christie always stood in the way of a statewide law that would require New Jersey businesses to allow their employees to accrue paid time off, Murphy campaigned on the issue last year, and he’s already held several events as governor to highlight the issue since taking office last month. A group of mayors, from municipalities where earned sick time is already required, added their support for a statewide law during a separate event in Newark yesterday, arguing it’s been a success at the local level.

Yet it remains to be seen how quickly lawmakers can work out the finer details on the issue, including whether any exemptions will be granted, and how much input they will take from business-lobbying groups who have raised concerns about prior earned sick-leave legislation. The issue could ultimately get bogged down in broader negotiations between Murphy and lawmakers, especially with the deadline for a new budget just a few months away.

Michele Siekerka, president and CEO of the New Jersey Business & Industry Association, said most New Jersey businesses already provide sick-time policies, seeing the value of maintaining “a healthy and productive workforce.”

In the past, business leaders have argued against a sick-day policy. Nevertheless, they prefer a statewide one than the current ad hoc arrangement where a patchwork of towns require it, making it much more difficult to administer.

Businesses want ‘fair and just outcome’

“We look forward to having a seat at the table to work with our policymakers to ensure a fair and just outcome that affords New Jersey businesses the ability to absorb the economic impacts,” Siekerka said.

As of earlier this month, there were nearly 18,000 confirmed influenza cases in New Jersey this flu season, with child fatalities occurring in Hudson, Ocean and Union counties. The actual number of flu cases in New Jersey is likely higher, as not everyone with the flu visits a doctor and not every doctor will conduct a flu test.

Beth Cohen, an emergency room nurse and official with the Health Professionals and Allied Employees labor organization, said this year’s flu season has been the worst she’s experienced in New Jersey. For example, waiting times at emergency rooms have been as long as five to seven hours, Cohen said during the news conference yesterday.

“I have never seen the flu decimate the community as much as I’ve seen this year,” she said.

One way she said the state could be better prepared to handle such conditions in future would be to make it easier for residents to take paid time off when they are sick, allowing them to heal more quickly, and to also keep others from being infected. But statewide, more than 1 million New Jersey residents are estimated to be in jobs that don’t currently allow them to earn paid sick days.

Downsides of working while sick

Judith Schmidt, chief executive officer of the New Jersey State Nurses Association, suggested the ongoing flu epidemic demonstrates how the broader population could benefit when all workers are allowed to earn paid time off rather than be forced to go to work while ill with a condition like the flu. She compared the situation to students getting each other sick in a school setting.

“We hear time and time again from patients reporting their symptoms that someone else came into work sick,” Schmidt said. “It doesn’t get any better as we get older.”

Public health concerns were also raised by the mayors who spoke up about earned sick leave during the news conference in Newark yesterday, according to a news release issued after the event.

“Montclair is proof that earned sick days keeps our families, communities, and local economies healthy,” said Montclair Mayor Robert Jackson. His town adopted an earned sick-leave ordinance in 2015.

“A statewide bill that provides earned sick time to all workers will make New Jersey an even healthier place to live and work, while setting an example for states around the country to follow,” Jackson said.

Under the new legislation introduced by Weinberg, employees could generally accrue one hour of paid sick leave for every 30 hours worked. They could earn between 40 and 72 hours of sick leave depending on the size of the company they work for. To address the issue of seasonal workers, the employees would also have to work 100 days before they could redeem their earned time off.

Weinberg said she envisions the earned sick-leave legislation working in conjunction with the recently enacted bill that provides new funding for family planning services and an ongoing push to ensure men and women are paid the same amount in New Jersey if they do the same work.

But she also conceded the earned sick-leave bill could change as it advances through the legislative process, with concerns like whether businesses with only a few employees should be exempted from the requirement still to be debated. Another issue for business lobbying groups is how the new regulation will coexist with the local ordinances, and how it will fit into Murphy’s broader economic-reform agenda, which includes a push to increase the statewide minimum hourly wage to $15.

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