New Jersey businesses are under increasing pressure to give workers paid sick leave, even as other states say employers do not have to offer the benefit. Cities such as Jersey City already require private businesses to offer accrued sick time for full-time employees. Now, state lawmakers want to extend the benefit - long considered an optional perk - to all 21 counties.
Assemblywoman Pamela Lampitt, D-Burlington, Camden, sponsored a bill requiring that private employers across New Jersey provide accrued sick leave to full-time workers at a rate of 1 hour for every 30 worked. The bill provides for as many as 40 hours of accrued sick leave per year. It was co-sponsored by four other Democratic lawmakers.
As many as 40 million Americans work in jobs that do not provide sick time, according to a 2013 study by the Economic Policy Institute, a nonprofit group based in Washington. Many work in the food, tourism and service industries.
Lampitt said the issue particularly affects the heads of households, who sometimes have to work multiple jobs to make a living. Many are single working mothers.
"We know after polling private employers that 25 to 30 percent do not offer any paid time off for full-time employees," she said.
"We're not looking at seasonal employees - college students who work at the shore. We're focused on the families who need the mother or father to be well and allow them the time to go to the doctor," she said.
For businesses, it might make good financial sense to let sick, contagious employees stay home so as to keep the remaining work force healthy. But many employers have been resistant, she said.
"It's just easier not to because of the cost of labor," she said.
There is no federal law requiring businesses to provide paid sick time. The Family and Medical Leave Act does not require paid leave, only unpaid leave of up to 12 weeks for certain medical and employment situations, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.
The Peter Shields Inn & Restaurant in Cape May provides paid sick time to its salaried employees.
"Personally, I've had to leave in the middle of a shift when my son was in a car accident," inn Manager Bridget Fowler said. "They said, 'Take as much time as you want.' They're very understanding."
Fowler said employees at her small businesses use paid sick time sparingly.
"If I don't show up, someone else has to come in," she said. "In a large business, they would definitely have people to cover them. We're lucky that everyone here is on the same page."
Fowler said she suspects some people in South Jersey would abuse the perk if it were mandatory.
"When you get to things like retail, I think people would take advantage of it. It's bad karma to call in sick when you're not sick," she said.
Public opinion is largely supportive of paid sick time. A poll last year by the Center for Women and Work at Rutgers University found that 83 percent of New Jersey residents support paid sick-day policies.
The study found that 37 percent of workers in New Jersey do not get paid time off when they or their children are sick. Workers reported they were reluctant to take unpaid time off when they were sick because they could not afford to lose the pay or could face reprisals from their employers.
"The fact is that close to 40 percent of New Jersey workers don't have it. Most are in low-wage jobs, those who could least afford taking time off," said Karen White, director of the center's working families program.
"There is research to suggest that providing earned sick days to workers is good for business. It increases retention and productivity," she said. "And when a worker comes to work sick, there is a greater likelihood of spreading the illness to other workers."
But even as New Jersey seeks to give its workers more flexibility in maintaining good health, other states say businesses should not have to subsidize their employees' absenteeism.
Ten states, including seven last year, repealed local or county measures requiring employers to provide sick leave, according to the institute.
"Taking unpaid sick time leaves workers vulnerable to losing their jobs in an economy with a stubbornly high long-term unemployment rate," the study found.
San Francisco mandated paid sick leave for all workers, including temporary and part-time employees, in 2007 and experienced little business fallout, according to a 2011 study by the Institute for Women's Policy Research. But one-quarter of businesses surveyed four years after implementation remained opposed to paid sick leave.
"They were scared about implementing a paid sick-leave requirement. The food industry came out against it," Lampitt said. "But they have seen no significant impact. They realized they have a work force that is happier. The relationship between employee and employer is better."
Lampitt said she is working on a compromise with groups such as the New Jersey Business and Industry Association and the New Jersey Food Council, but she conceded it could be a hard sell to these trade groups.
"Even if we work with them, they're still going to be opposed to this," she said.
Businesses in the service industry can't absorb absenteeism as easily as some other jobs. The Point Diner in Somers Point has a call-in system to bring in workers when necessary to replace those who are out sick, Manager Sue Gunther, of Egg Harbor Township, said.
"We just hope it's not more than one person a day. Knock on wood, I don't usually get sick. I've been here 13 years and I've called out once - because my grandmother died," she said. "You want dependable people. It puts pressure on you as the boss."
Michele Gillian, director of the Ocean City Regional Chamber of Commerce, said many small businesses in South Jersey don't offer this employee benefit because they can't afford to.
"It's something we're looking at. We all want to do the right thing for our employees. All these bills have good intentions. But it's very difficult for small business to exist in the environment where you have so much competition, particularly with online shopping," she said.
Small businesses have been saddled with increased contributions to the state unemployment insurance and rising health-insurance costs, even for those that are exempt from the provisions of the Affordable Care Act.
This is just another challenge, she said.
"We are at a point where we need help from our elected officials to make sure that small businesses aren't on the endangered species list," she said.
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