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Controversy Arises Over Proposed Paid Sick Leave Ordinance

Some Community Organizations Cite Shortfalls with City's Proposed Ordinance
March for Worker's Rights

NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ--On December 16th, New Brunswick City Council will hold a public hearing and, perhaps a final vote, on the city's proposed Paid Sick Leave Ordinance.

Known as Ordinance O-121501, this law would amend and supplement the revised general ordinances of the city, specifically Title 8, Chapter 56, to provide for "paid sick time" and "paid safe time" for many workers in New Brunswick.

The proposed ordinance allows for full-time employees (those who work more than 35 hours a week) to have the opportunity to accrue 40 hours of sick or safe leave a year.

Part-time employees (those who work between 20 and 35 hours a week) have the opportunity to accrue 25 hours of sick or safe time a year.

Employees can use this time to recover from an illness, to care for a sick loved one, or to attend preventive care medical appointments.

The ordinance also includes provisions for “safe leave,” where time accrued can be used to take time off if they or a family member are experiencing domestic violence, sexual assault, or stalking.

The time can be used to seek legal or law enforcement assistance, to seek medical or psychological treatment, obtain social services, relocate, and participate in safety planning or any other action to increase the employee or family member’s safety.

New Brunswick would be the eleventh city in New Jersey to pass some form of paid sick leave, and the only city to implement safe leave in their proposal.

Unlike sick leave, an employer cannot require the employee to provide documentation or explanation if safe time is being used—an employee’s written and signed statement is considered acceptable documentation.

Business are required to comply with the Paid Sick Leave Ordinance if they are based in New Brunswick and if they have five or more full time employees.

Each employee has to “earn” their sick leave as per the ordinance by working at the company for a certain period of time.

An employee has to work 35 hours to gain one hour of sick leave. The amount of sick leave an employee can earn is capped at either 40 or 25 hours depending on their employment status.

O-121501 passed "on first reading" on December 2.  By law, ordinances must be pass a vote of the Council twice, before they are presented to the Mayor for final approval.

During the second reading, scheduled for December 16 at 6:30 PM, members ofthe public is encouraged to comment or ask questions.  The meeting will be held on the top floor of City Hall at 78 Bayard Street.

LOCAL ORGANIZATIONS FIGHT FOR PASAGE OF SICK LEAVE LAW

Community organizations such as New Labor, Unity Square and the Esperanza Neighborhood Project have been campaigning for a New Brunswick Paid Sick Leave ordinance since early 2014.

Through grassroots actions such as protests and petitions, these organizations have put increased pressure on the Mayor James Cahill and the City Council to enact Paid Sick Leave legislation.

Through the hard work of these groups, the current ordinance specifically provides protection for workers who are employed through New Brunswick's many temporary agencies.

These agencies, which employ roughly 12% of the New Brunswick population, typically send workers to jobs that emphasize manual labor, incluing factory jobs with high rates of injury.

Providing paid sick leave to these workers legitimizes their employment, and holds temporary agencies accountable for the welfare of their employees.

Proponents say that one of the main draws of the current Paid Sick Leave legislation is the public health benefit.

By providing time for workers to rehabilitate from illness, or to care for loved ones during their period of illness, Paid Sick Leave legislation will allow those with contagious or communicable illnesses to stay away from the general public.

This policy will specifically improve the retail and foodservice industries where employees frequently interact with customers and have to complete a variety of potential germ-spreading tasks.

Unlike several other New Jersey cities that have enacted similar legislation, New Brunswick activists say they have worked hard to make sure this ordinance includes clear accountability and enforcement language.

“The intention to enforce implementation is at a huge premium by Mayor and the Municipal Government,” said Director of Unity Square, Jason Rowe.

Anytime an employee feels that he or she did not receive the ability to use his or her earned sick leave, the employee can file a complaint with the Department of Economic Development and Planning.

Once the complaint is filed, City Planning Director Glenn Patterson will be in charge of addressing the complaint and making sure due justice is served.

“I’m really excited to start 2016 where so many families without sick leave will no longer have to make terrible choices” of whether to stay home with a sick child or potentially lose his or her job “that I as a father couldn’t dream of,” said Rowe.

OPPONENTS DEMAND CHANGES AND IMPROVEMENTS

However, other New Jersey labor and community organizations, such as New Jersey Working Families Alliance (NJWFA)and New Jersey Citizen Action, have some qualms about the proposed ordinance.

“We’re thrilled that the city of New Brunswick wants to join the growing number of New Jersey communities that want to guarantee workers’ rights to paid sick days,” says Phyllis Salowe-Kaye, executive director of New Jersey Citizen Action.

“However,” she continues, “it falls below the minimum standards other cities have established.”

One issue that NJWFA and NJCA found with this ordinance is that it does not cover employees who work fewer than twenty hours a week.

Also, businesses with fewer than five employees are not required to comply with this legislation.

They worry that many New Brunswick employees, including those who work in small shop such as bodegas, would be excluded from the ordinance because the employer does not meet the eligibility requirements.

Not only is this harmful for employees who don’t meet this requirement, Working Families and NJCA say, but it also encourages employers to keep a small staff of employees, and to keep them working less than twenty hours a week.

The statewide organizations, which are each affiliated with larger national groups, contend there are even more problems with the law, specifically exceptions made to appease the city's two major hospitals and its sizable restaurant industry

Opponents argue the so-called "carve-outs" negate many of the public health benefits the ordinance is aiming to achieve.  For example, per diem hospital workers are not covered under the proposed ordinance.

A per diem hospital worker could be anyone from a nurse to a clerical worker to someone who works in the hospital laundry room.

The critics say these workers will be left with no other options but to come to work in the hospitals—where the patients are most vulnerable to disease—even if they are sick and contagious.

The ordinance also allows restaurants to require their employees to provide a doctor’s note when they call in sick on certain "blackout days," such as holidays.

Opponents of the current sick leave legislation say that requiring documentation from workers who do not have adequate health insurance, or who are recovering from communicable diseases such as the stomach flu or the common cold, and would struggle to pay for that visit seems unnecessary and undermines the public health.

Opponents are demanding that flaws such as the eligibility requirements and the hospital worker exclusion are fixed before the ordinance is passed.

But the organizations that have been most involved in the fight, both of which have close relationships with the city government, support the ordinance in its current form.

“This controversy [regarding the pushback on the current ordinance] is overblown,” said Charles Bergman, the Director of Esperanza Neighborhood Project, an initiative of New Brunswick Tomorrow.

“The people who have been most involved do support the ordinance as proposed, and it will benefit thousands of workers and their families,” he said.

According to New Brunswick Public Information Office Jennifer Bradshaw, the Mayor has been intimately involved in the crafting of this ordinance.

For the better part of a year, the City has been involved with this issue and has reached out to and received feedback from large and small employers, employees and advocacy groups for both employers and employees to ensure that the concerns of multiple stakeholders are addressed.

“This has been a largely cooperative collaboration among the different groups involved and the Mayor feels that what we’ve put forth best addresses the specific needs of our community,” said Bradshaw.