This op-ed appeared in the December 4, 2013 edition of The Times of Trenton.
By Danielle Lindemann and Jon Whiten
When a New Jersey worker gets sick or needs to care for a family member, should she have to lose wages and risk losing her job? To us, and the thousands of advocates working to bring earned sick days to the 1.2 million Garden State workers who lack this basic benefit, the answer is clearly no.
And, as it turns out, an overwhelming majority of our neighbors agree.
New Jersey does not currently require its private employers to extend earned sick days to employees – a policy choice that has negative consequences not only for the workers who need this time the most but for all of us. On the heels of Jersey City’s decision to sign a paid sick time bill into law, and in light of Newark’s movement toward a similar ordinance, there is real momentum in Trenton to enact a statewide policy that would cover all of the state’s workers.
Guaranteed access to earned sick days is commonplace in most developed nations and has been passed in other American cities and states, including San Francisco, Portland, Seattle, Washington, D.C., New York City and Connecticut. While this policy makes common sense and is widely supported, there’s still an uphill climb to get strong policies enacted. This must be because earned sick leave is a particularly controversial and divisive issue, right?
In fact, despite increasing political polarization and what appears to be a lack of consensus on just about everything, New Jerseyans strongly support earned sick days, according to recent polling done by the Eagleton Center for Public Interest Polling at Rutgers University that was detailed in a research brief by the Rutgers Center for Women and Work.
More than four in five – 83 percent – have favorable opinions toward the policy and about just as many – 81 percent – support the legislation sponsored by Assemblywoman Pamela Lampitt that would extend earned sick days to all New Jersey workers. The strong support cuts across political, economic and demographic boundaries; even among the group that is least likely to favor earned sick days – registered Republicans – 73 percent support it.
You may be wondering, then, whose opposition to earned sick days is making this so difficult?
It is, not surprisingly, entrenched business lobbying interests that have indicated they will fight this policy tooth and nail. Groups that claim to speak for a monolithic business community often register their opposition to mandatory earned leave policies – as they have done with mandatory wage policies, overtime policies and hosts of other common-sense pro-worker policies – arguing that the workers will be harmed, jobs will be lost and the economy will suffer.
But none of that is the case. Earned sick leave policies provide benefits for not only employees, but also for their employers and surrounding communities, while having no adverse consequence on the economy. Allowing sick workers to take time off without losing pay decreases the risk of illness spreading through a workplace, through schools (more sick children are kept out of school when their parents can afford to stay home to care for them) and through the community (food service workers are a great threat to public health when ill, but only one in four food service workers in New Jersey has access to earned sick time).
In addition, when workers are able to take time off for illness, businesses are more productive – to the benefit of the entire state economy. When employees go to work sick it actually costs their employers far more in lost productivity than when employees stay home to get better. And when workers know that one nasty winter cold won’t jeopardize their earnings, they are better able to plan their finances and more likely to spend money at businesses in their communities.
Sadly, the New Jerseyans without access to earned sick days are the ones who need this workplace standard the most.
The economic and demographic groups most likely to lack this benefit are the very groups that often lack the financial resources to be able to compensate for this lost time: those earning less than $50,000 a year, those without a high school degree, young adults and Latinos.
Women are also less likely than men to have access to earned leave. This is particularly disconcerting since women are society’s main caregivers; they are far more likely than men to miss work to care for their children and – without earned sick days – to be let go from their jobs because they are caring for ill family members.
The benefits of earned sick days are clear. Providing this benefit to all New Jersey workers would be a healthy step for the state. It is time to take that step.
Danielle Lindemann is Research Director and Assistant Research Professor at the Center for Women and Work, Rutgers University; Jon Whiten is Deputy Director at the nonprofit, nonpartisan think tank New Jersey Policy Perspective.
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