Advocates Say It’s Time for State to Mandate and Expand Paid Sick Leave

Andrew Kitchenman | November 8, 2013 | Health Care, More Issues
Jersey City passes sick-leave ordinance, business groups question need for any statute

Assemblywoman Pamela R. Lampitt (D-Burlington and Camden)
Paying employees when they’re out sick has been standard practice at many companies for decades, but state legislators are eyeing a bill that would expand the benefit to a wider range of workers.

Following the passage of a municipal paid sick-leave statute in Jersey City, advocates believe that momentum is building for statewide changes. Assembly Speaker-elect Vincent Prieto (D-Bergen and Hudson) mentioned the issue in his first press conference after being chosen to lead the Assembly starting next year, saying that he wants to see the issue addressed.

Advocates point to potential health benefits that would accrue when sick employees stay at home, rather than coming in to work and spreading their germs. A bill that’s been introduced in both houses of the Legislature A-4125/S-2866] would give all employees earned sick leave based on the number of days they have worked. It’s opposed by some in the business community, who question whether there is evidence of a problem in New Jersey.

The bill would enable employees to accrue one hour of paid time off for every 30 hours of work. Companies with fewer than 10 workers would have to provide a minimum of 40 hours of paid sick leave each year, while those with more than 10 would have to provide a minimum of 72 hours.

Assemblywoman Pamela R. Lampitt (D-Burlington and Camden) said she introduced the bill in the Assembly in May after hearing from constituents and activists who felt it was important to make the change. She said her intent is for the bill to cover more than just sick days; it would also give employees flexible paid time off for personal reasons.

Lampitt said the bill would address situations in which workers have short-term illnesses, such as the flu, which are not covered by the paid family leave law. That legislation covers longer-term illnesses.

“All you need is one terrible flu virus to go through your office to leave stricken the productivity,” Lampitt said.

She noted that voters approved a minimum wage increase on Tuesday and speculated that they would also approve mandated sick pay if given the choice.

Lampitt emphasized that she wants to work with business groups in crafting the legislation. She said the bill — which as drafted covers all workers — would likely be changed based on the feedback she has received.

“We all want to be business-friendly; we want to create opportunities to be successful here,” Lampitt said.

She expects that when the effect of the Jersey City ordinance is observed, people will “realize the world isn’t coming to an end.” She added that the bill won’t require workers to be paid if they don’t use the time off and that it could include a provision requiring workers get a doctor’s note for time off that lasts a number of days.

The Jersey City ordinance, which goes into effect on January 24, is more modest than the proposed state bill. It requires that employers with at least 10 workers provide a minimum of 40 hours of paid sick time, while employers with fewer workers would have to provide unpaid time off. A similar measure is advancing in Newark.

The effects of having employees go to work while sick can be far ranging, noted Vicki Shabo, director of work and family programs for the Washington, D.C.,-based National Partnership for Women & Families. The nonprofit aims to promote workplace fairness and healthcare access.

Shabo pointed to studies that found a link between the spread of the 2009 H1N1 flu pandemic and workers who didn’t have sick leave. One study used statistical models to estimate the increased risk posed by who go to work sick.

Shabo also said there are secondary health benefits, such allowing workers who have sick pay to visit a doctor, increasing their chances of receiving screenings for other conditions, like cancer. In addition, parents with sick leave are more likely to keep their children home when they are sick.

“It’s both the smart thing to do in terms of public health and the right thing to do in terms of allowing workers and their families to control their security,” Shabo said.

Business groups are raising concerns about the bill. Michael Egenton, senior vice president for the New Jersey Chamber of Commerce, said there hasn’t been any empirical data showing that there’s a problem in New Jersey.

“Most small and midmarket employers have good relations with their employees,” Egenton said. “If they need time off if they’re sick or for whatever reason, I’m sure most employers would do that.”

Egenton added that the issue should be decided at the state level, noting that the chamber opposed the Jersey City ordinance. He also said no action should be taken on the state bill until the impact of the next state budget on businesses is known, adding that employers would already feel a higher level of uncertainty this year due to the combination of a mandatory sick pay with annual minimum wage increases required by the new constitutional amendment.

“It’s all of these regulatory hurdles and administrative burdens and costs and fees and everything else that adds up, that causes a business owner to just throw their hands in the air” and move operations to other states, he said.

Lampitt said she plans to move forward with the bill in the next legislative session. Sen. Loretta Weinberg (D-Bergen) has sponsored the Senate version of the bill.