Paid Sick Leave’s Impact on Workers, Businesses Earns Mixed Prognosis

Andrew Kitchenman | June 17, 2014 | Health Care
Supporters cite public health benefits but employers warn mandates could force cuts in salaries and jobs

Senate sponsor Sen. Loretta Weinberg (D-Bergen) says requiring paid sick leave would improve public health by reducing the spread of infectious diseases.
One year after groups representing workers and employers battled over a minimum wage hike, a rematch is looming this fall over requiring paid sick leave.

Supporters emphasize the potential public health benefits, including a reduction in contagious diseases spread by sick workers.

But employer groups caution that proposed legislation would worsen the state’s business climate at a time when the state’s economy remains fragile.

Under the bill, S-785 /A-2354, employees would earn one hour of paid sick leave for every 30 hours they work.

The maximum number of hours that they could accrue would depend on the size of the employer: 40 hours for workers at businesses with fewer than 10 employees and 72 hours for those at businesses with 10 or more employees.

Workers could use the time off when they were sick, to care for a family member, or in instances of domestic violence. Paid sick leave would begin to accrue after a worker had been on the job for 90 days.

The bill would prohibit employers from retaliating against workers who requested or used paid sick leave, or who filed a complaint alleging that the employer violated the law.

Dr. George Barry Prystowsky, a Nutley pediatrician, said some parents delay treatment for serious illnesses because they can't afford medicines after they take off from work on unpaid sick leave.
Dr. George Barry Prystowsky, a Nutley pediatrician, said he encounters parents who are delaying treatment for serious illnesses, including acute infections.

“They go to emergency rooms at night because they can’t get out of work,” Prystowsky said. “People are telling me, ‘Oh, I can’t afford the medicine (if they take an unpaid sick day) because I have to buy my milk or food tonight.’ People are living as in a third-world country and I see it every day in my office and it’s tearing me apart. They’re scared to get sick.”

He added the sooner that an infection is treated, the less likely it is that it will become a serious illness.

“Think of what mama used to tell you when you were a kid: ‘You’re sick, stay home, rest, take your medicine, get better,’ ” said Prystowsky, who successfully asked the Essex County Medical Society to endorse the bill.

Bill advocates point to a September poll by Rutgers University’s Eagleton Institute that found 83 percent of New Jersey residents support mandating paid sick leave, with that support spanning all demographics. It also found that 37 percent of state residents lack access to paid sick days, equivalent to 1.2 million private-sector workers.

But business advocates warned the bill would have negative repercussions, pointing out that the proposed mandates exceed the sick-leave benefits of most employers that currently offer paid leave.

“Every business is different and you need to have flexibility as a small business to be successful,” said David Brogan, first vice president of the New Jersey Business & Industry Association, whose business members employ 1.1 million workers.

He cited as an example a business with an hourly worker who is out of work – not only would the business have to pay the sick worker, but it would also have to pay for a replacement.

“Each of these mandates, they come at a cost and people don’t talk about the cost,” Brogan said, adding that employers might reduce pay or reduce workers’ hours to make up for the cost of sick leave.

“Those costs have to come from somewhere else,” he said.

Brogan said the additional mandate would also increase the administrative burdens and the potential legal liability of employers.

“We think this makes New Jersey less competitive, less enticing and less attractive for business to want to come here — and in this economy, that’s the last thing that you want here,” said Brogan, noting that most employers already offer paid sick leave on a voluntary basis.

New Jersey would become the second state in the country — after Connecticut in 2012 — to adopt a paid sick leave law.

The Connecticut law only applies to businesses with 50 or more workers. It’s also less generous than the New Jersey bill – providing one hour of paid leave for every 40 hours of work, up to a maximum of 40 hours of paid leave.

Senate sponsor Sen. Loretta Weinberg (D-Bergen) noted that many of those without paid sick leave work in areas like home healthcare and food service, where they could easily spread infectious diseases to vulnerable residents. Food workers cause about 70 percent of outbreaks of norovirus, which causes diarrhea and vomiting, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“Not only is this an important workers’ right, it is a health protection for everybody else,” Weinberg said.

The bill’s sponsor in the Assembly, Assemblywoman Pamela R. Lampitt (D-Burlington and Camden), noted that Jersey City and Newark have already enacted paid sick leave measures at the local level.

As a result, she said, businesses located outside of those cities that employ people who live in those cities have been put in “convoluted” situation.

“We should do a unified effort” that would cross municipal boundaries, she said.

Bloomsbury truck-stop worker Bill Ludwig said he and his coworkers don’t have paid sick leave. If they stay home sick they are criticized by their employer, he said. But if they come to work sick, he continued, “They’re asking you, ‘Why did you show up?’ So you’re caught in the middle.”

Supporters of the bill, including labor groups, yesterday launched a lobbying campaign that aims to win passage of the bill late this year or early next year, according to Edward Correa, executive director of Working Families United for New Jersey Inc., a nonprofit organized to support the bill.

Brogan said the NJBIA would also be reaching out to legislators throughout the year: “What we want to do is educate the Legislature that every new mandate has a cost — and that cost needs to be made up somewhere by business.”