This November, six municipalities in New Jersey will attempt to join the majority of the industrialized world by passing laws that would require businesses to provide paid sick leave for their employees. While a state-wide requirement is stalled in the legislature, approximately 140,000 employees in our state would earn the benefit by the new year if these ballot initiatives pass. The debate surrounding paid sick leave laws has been predictable. Those in favor of the law cite to compassionate arguments of sick workers needing the opportunity to get healthy without risking their finances. Those against the law have argued that it will do more harm than good as employers are forced to lay off employees. Looking through the facts and studies available shows that not only are these laws necessary for workers, but the economic fear driving the opposition is largely unfounded.
Newark, where a paid sick leave law went into effect on June 1 of this year, provides the model for the rest of the state. In Newark, employees earn one hour of paid sick time for every 30 hours they work. The amount of paid sick leave available to a particular employee depends on the size of the employer. Employees at businesses with 10 or more employees can earn 40 hours of paid sick leave per year, and employees at businesses with fewer than 10 employees can earn 24 hours per year. The leave can be used to care for oneself, a spouse or a child.
Currently, there is no federal or state requirement for employers to provide paid sick leave. The Family Medical Leave Act of 1993 requires employers to provide unpaid leave to an employee who is ill or is taking care of an ill relative. The New Jersey Paid Family Leave Act also provides six weeks of unpaid leave for employees caring for a sick child. Luckily, employees in New Jersey receive paid leave for caring for a seriously ill family member through Family Leave Insurance, a provision of New Jersey’s Temporary Disability Law. But no statute or program provides paid leave for the type of short and common illnesses that routinely interfere with an employee’s ability to do his job.
This legal infrastructure creates plenty of moral reasons to pass the law. Professionals often have the luxury of taking a sick day without concern, working from home or simply resting to get better. But wage-earning employees have much harder decisions to make. Paid sick leave would spare employees from the agonizing decision of going to work ill or sacrificing their paycheck. Parents could care for sick children, and spouses could take care of one another, without worrying about losing any salary. For employees who are living paycheck to paycheck, the promise of unpaid leave does not provide the protection necessary to properly care for their health or the health of a loved one.
It is simply unfounded to claim that the compassionate reasons behind paid sick leave are trumped by economic considerations. Paid sick leave improves worker morale and increases productivity. A 2014 study of Connecticut’s paid sick leave showed that 77 percent of businesses were supportive of the law within a year and a half of implementation, and only one in 10 businesses reported an increased payroll cost of 3 percent or more. San Francisco passed a paid sick leave requirement in 2006, and multiple studies illustrate that employment rates have not suffered as a result. An additional study showed that six out of seven San Francisco employers did not report any decreased profitability as a result of the ordinance.
This is not the first time in our state, however, that economic fears have been overblown in an attempt to defeat employee-friendly legislation. Before the implementation of New Jersey’s Paid Family Leave Act in 2009, businesses expressed strong opposition to the measure, citing disastrous economic results. A 2012 study by the Rutgers University Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy showed that the effect of the legislation on businesses was inconsequential. The study showed that the benefit is not used nearly as much as feared, and even when employees take paid family leave, it does not negatively affect their employer. While small businesses did report higher administrative costs because of the bill, the study showed that a majority of businesses have experienced no effects on business profitability, performance and employee productivity. Three years after the implementation of the bill, a majority of businesses who participated in the study said they have had no difficulty complying with the new law. These results are even more poignant when considering the study was sponsored by the pro-business New Jersey Business and Industrial Association.
Since the early years of the 20th century, our country and our state have been on a steady course of progress in providing our employees the rights and protections necessary for a safe, healthy and fair working environment. Paid sick leave is the next step in that course and, hopefully, come November, our state will inch closer to providing that right for its citizens.
Natale is an associate at the Law Offices of Leo B. Dubler III in Mount Laurel, N.J. His practice focuses on representing plaintiffs in employment litigation.