Advocates renew push for statewide earned sick leave

BY Brenda Flanagan, Senior Correspondent |

“It made me feel so unimportant and so humiliated, in all honesty, I cried on the bus ride home,” said Saffiyah Muhammed of East Orange.

Muhammed said she brought her sick son to work once because her manager at a New Jersey retail store refused to give her the day off.

“My employer told me, ‘What in the world are you doing? You can’t bring a child to work. No less a sick child.’ And I said, ‘But you didn’t give me any option. It was either take care of my son or lose my job,'” she said.

One million New Jersey workers don’t get earned sick days, and state legislation to enact it stalled for four years in Trenton. Lawmakers introduced another bill Monday. Its sponsor, Sen. Loretta Weinberg, says one doctor told her the current flu epidemic’s worse because sick workers didn’t stay home.

“She told me how many patients with really advanced flu she actually saw who said to her, ‘I couldn’t stay home,’ or, ‘I couldn’t go to the doctor, because I couldn’t afford to lose a day’s pay,'” said Weinberg.

“Would you rather have one employee out for a day or two with an illness, such as the flu, and pay for a replacement, or risk that that one employee infect more than half of your staff and your customers,” asked New Jersey State Nurses Association CEO Judith Schmidt.

The bill says workers can earn one hour of paid sick time for every 30 hours worked, up to five days for businesses with ten or more employees, or three days for smaller businesses. It exempts seasonal workers. Instead of waiting for a state law, 13 New Jersey towns have already passed their own local earned sick leave ordinances. They admit it wasn’t easy.

“A small amount of the push back was from businesses basically saying, ‘Why is government in my small business?’ Which is what we hear all the time,” said Morristown Mayor Timothy Dougherty. “And we did educate them that this was coming forward and I can end on this: There has been no negative effect, to my knowledge.”

“While we talk and discuss and nudge and threaten folks as much as we possibly can, there’s obviously some gaps, some problems in getting everyone to get on board with this. And we believe if the state does this, it would be easier for us to enact and to enforce everything that we need around earned sick leave in our city,” said Newark Mayor Ras Baraka.

New Jersey’s Business and Industry Association noted, “Any statewide paid sick leave law should preempt all local ordinances and allow employers the flexibility to establish policies that best meet their business needs.”

Steven Fulop, the mayor of Jersey City, the first city to adopt paid sick leave, warned against too many exemptions.

“You had people saying this would create hardships, you had people saying that they needed to be exempted. You had people pointing to all sorts of circumstances that was special to them. What we decided in Jersey City was to do it once and to do it properly, that covered everybody,” said Fulop.

There’s no federal law, but seven states already have earned sick day statutes. Gov. Phil Murphy says he’s ready to make New Jersey the eighth.