Paid sick leave proposals gain momentum in New Jersey, but remains a divisive issue

Associated Press

Even though hundreds of thousands of workers in New Jersey have gained paid sick leave under a wave of local laws that have swept through the state in recent years, worker advocates say much more work needs to be done.

Labor and trade associations have made a full-court press on the issue, arguing that low-wage workers face economic hardships when they take off from work due to sickness but do not get paid. They estimate that 1.2 million workers in the state still don't have paid sick leave, meaning they often have to choose between getting well and holding down a job.

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"It's something every worker should have, no matter what their station in life," said Shirley Turner, a single mother of two young sons who has been working in the food service industry for several years. The 38-year-old Jackson resident says dealing with illness, even just a cold or the flu, is a major headache.

"I'm not looking for a handout. I want to work, I want to contribute to society, but the fact is that sometimes I get sick or my kids get sick, and we need time off to get well," she said. "Nobody wants a sick person handling their food, and you don't want to infect your co-workers. Everyone benefits from having paid sick leave."

The proposals continue to draw criticism from several business groups and others, including Gov. Chris Christie. Critics say they are not opposed to the concept but don't believe it should be a government mandate. Stating that business owners already have incentives to keep their employees happy and healthy, they and Christie have warned the proposals will stunt job growth and drive businesses out of the state.

"This is something that is best left in the hands of business owners, who should be the ones to decide what benefits they want to offer and how they should be offered," said Erica Klemens, New Jersey state director of the right-leaning advocacy group Americans for Prosperity. She also noted that different communities have different rules, which can "complicate" the way businesses operate.

Nine municipalities in New Jersey now have local earned sick time laws, covering more than 150,000 workers. Most of these laws are similarly worded and have gone into effect over the last two years, and at least three more towns are scheduled to consider earned sick time ordinances this year through either council votes or ballot questions.

Proponents remain hopeful that state lawmakers eventually will make paid sick leave the law of the land, but the legislation has stalled in the Assembly and Senate, where bills have cleared committee hurdles but have not passed either chamber.

Opponents of earned sick time for all "are on the wrong side of history," said Rob Duffey, a spokesman for the liberal New Jersey Working Families Alliance. "We will continue to advocate for a strong statewide bill, and local communities will continue to take matters into their own hands."

Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto regards the bill as a priority, said spokesman Tom Hester. In the Senate, Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg sponsored the bill in that chamber and has called earned sick leave a basic right.

But the legislation is not poised to be acted on soon, and in some ways remains a work in progress.

"I feel strongly about having a statewide standard. I'm not looking to repeal what any community did, but I will not support 565 different standards," state Senate President Steve Sweeney said. "It's bad for business. Hopefully we can come to agreement with the Assembly."

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Associated Press writer Michael Catalini contributed to this report.