When influenza struck New Jerseyans particularly hard in the winter of 2018, state lawmakers and health care professionals used the widespread virus to illustrate the need for earned sick-leave time legislation statewide. People were coming to their workplaces with symptoms of the flu, when they otherwise might have stayed home, because they would not get paid for sick days.
“We hear time and time again from patients reporting their symptoms that someone else came into work sick,” said Judith Schmidt, chief executive officer of the New Jersey State Nurses Association, at the time. Even with private company policies and a patchwork of municipalities with earned sick-leave time for employees, an estimated 1 million-plus state residents had jobs that did not offer such benefits.
The scenario changed later in 2018, when statewide earned sick-leave time was signed into New Jersey law. Passage had taken years of effort — former Gov. Chris Christie had opposed the measure, while his successor Gov. Phil Murphy made it part of his election campaign. Today, some U.S. Congress members are using the new coronavirus as the impetus to pass a version of federal earned sick-leave time legislation that originated in 2004.
What New Jersey’s law says
As the impact of the coronavirus continues to unfold in the state, here’s a reminder of what the law provides.
- Most New Jersey workers are covered for their illness and to care for family members: With few exceptions, employers of all sizes must provide employees with up to 40 hours a year of paid sick leave, whether they are full-time, part-time or temporary workers. The requirement does not extend to construction workers under a union contract, independent contractors, per diem health care employees and public employees receiving sick leave at full pay under other state laws or rules. The law allows New Jerseyans to use earned sick time for their own illness or to care for a sick family member, which includes but is not limited to one’s spouse, children, grandchildren, domestic partner, parent, sibling or grandparent.
- Earned sick time can be used when schools close: If a child’s school closes because of a public health emergency, such as the coronavirus, and an employee needs to stay home to care for the child, that’s covered, too.
- How it works: Sick day pay can be distributed two ways: accrued over time at 1 hour of earned sick leave for every 30 hours worked, or advancing the 40 hours at the beginning of a benefit year. Unused sick time can be carried over to the next year, or an employer can choose to pay out those hours.
When 40 hours isn’t enough
While 40 hours of earned sick time a year might be sufficient in ordinary situations, it’s simple math that a 14-day quarantine for coronavirus exceeds New Jersey’s earned sick-leave law’s provision. What then? For some people, their employer’s policies may offer generous leave, but according to the state Department of Labor, there are some other possible programs to consider, many of which provide benefits based on the worker’s rate of pay.
For example, a person who can’t work because he has been diagnosed with the coronavirus could apply for temporary disability insurance. If there’s reason to believe the coronavirus was contracted at the workplace (from an infected coworker or by serving a customer, for example), the employee could apply for worker’s compensation. If a business closes or reduces work hours because of the coronavirus, employees might be eligible for full or partial unemployment benefits. A worker who needs more time to care for family members could be eligible for Family Leave Insurance.
New guidance for civil service workers
On March 10, the New Jersey Civil Service Commission issued emergency guidelines for state workers aimed at balancing their personal situations with the need to keep state programs and services running. Under the directive, no sick time will be docked if a state employee is diagnosed with the coronavirus; has been exposed to the virus and must self-quarantine or is recommended to stay home; is caring for a family member who meets any of these criteria; or is staying home with a child whose school or child care center has closed. Additionally, state agencies can allow employees to work from home or have flexible schedules.
“We take the severity of this virus seriously and will work with our departments and agencies to ensure the health and well-being of our employees while ensuring the continued operations of the state and delivery of much-needed services,” said Deirdré Webster Cobb, Chair/CEO of the New Jersey Civil Service Commission, in a statement.