Shenida Griffith knows all too well what it's like to have to choose between taking care of a sick kid and holding down a job.
The Trenton resident says she was fired two years ago from a chain restaurant after her son, now 5, was hospitalized and she asked to take several days off to care for him.
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"When my kids get sick, I'm a very hands-on kind of person," said Griffith, who's 21. "I literally want to be there for every snot, every tear."
Soon, she hopes, she and other New Jersey parents will have that option.
An estimated 140,000 state residents are entitled to or are about to be entitled to paid sick leave under a wave of legislation that has swept through municipalities, but more than 1 million aren't. At this point last year, the state had no laws on the books giving employees the right to take time off when they or their families are sick. Now, eight municipalities do, with statewide legislation expected to continue making its way through the statehouse next year.
New Jersey Citizen Action, a watchdog group, has helped spearhead the effort along with the New Jersey Working Families Alliance and local unions.
"The reality is that everybody gets sick and everybody needs to either get well again or take care of family members when they're sick," said Dena Mottola Jaborska, the group's director of advocacy.
But many business leaders and other critics, including Republican Gov. Chris Christie, say the legislation is the wrong approach and warn it will stunt job growth and drive businesses out of the state.
"These towns that are doing it just continue to make New Jersey less and less competitive," Christie said in a TV interview Monday. "And then when businesses leave the state, they want to know why."
The state director of the conservative Americans for Prosperity, which has nearly 100,000 members in the state, argued business owners already have incentives to keep their employees happy and healthy. State director Daryn Iwicki noted the move toward paid sick leave comes just as the state is about to impose a higher minimum wage, adding strain to businesses.
But Democratic Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop said he hadn't seen any negative impacts since his city became the first to implement a paid sick leave law in January.
"It's been terrific," he said, noting the city had yet to impose any penalties because businesses have agreed to work with employees who have filed grievances.
Rob Duffey, a spokesman for the liberal New Jersey Working Families Alliance, said the municipal strategy came about because advocates couldn't figure out how to get a statewide bill around Christie, who has long been hostile to this kind of legislation.
So they decided to try to build momentum by passing ordinances in local municipalities. The first was Jersey City, then Newark. In other areas, citizens got questions on election ballots. By the end of the year, Irvington, Passaic, Paterson, Trenton, Montclair and East Orange had passed legislation, too.
The day after petitions were delivered, said Duffey, Democratic Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto said he was fast-tracking the statewide bill.
Democratic Assemblywoman Pamela Lampitt, the legislation's chief sponsor, said the goal now was to strike a balance between the needs of the workers and those of the businesses that employ them.
As for Christie, advocates say they hope his 2016 presidential ambitions might increase the pressure to pass popular bipartisan legislation that polls especially well with women.
"We want to make the decision as difficult for him as possible," Duffey said.