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The Movement For Paid Sick Leave Grows in New Brunswick

Advocates For Workers Rights See Mandatory Sick Days as Major Battleground
Paid Sick Leave campaign
Paid Sick Leave organizers and supporters after the April 18 City Council meeting. Charlie Kratovil

NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ—A coalition of community leaders and members from Unity Square, the Esperanza Project, and New Labor have been ramping up pressure on New Brunswick's City Council to pass an ordinance requiring paid sick leave for nearly all employees in the Hub City.

Paid sick leave is time off from work that employees can utilize in order to tend to health and safety concerns, or care for sick children, while still being able to retain their pay and not risk losing their job.

Passing a paid sick leave ordinance is good for public health, as well as workers and their employers, advocates have argued.

Many workers in New Brunswick suffer from not having paid sick leave on the books, part of the reason a growing new labor movement has begun in order to protect laborers in the Hub City from workplace abuse, wage theft, and exploitation.

For over a year, sick leave has been a galvanizing issue in the community, with support from the same forces that got New Brunswick to pass the state's first anti-wage-theft ordinance.  Organizers called that law a major success.

Moreover, a handful of the state's biggest and most progressive cities have adopted a model ordinance that recently stood up to a court challenge.

Simultaneously, one member of the coalition, the membership-based organization New Labor, is working towards an annual event to honor workers who die on the job.

"On Workers' Memorial Day, we remember those who died in the workplace. We go to work to live, not to die," said Louis Kimmel of New Labor.

"We shouldn't have to be put in a place where we could die or get seriously injured because we have no other option but to work," he said, emphasizing the importance of the paid sick leave issue.

His organization will be leading a march that starts at 1pm on Sunday, April 26, beginning at the Anshe Emethe Temple at 222 Livingston Avenue.  The annual event drew hundreds of supporters last year.

Passing a sick leave ordinance is crucial to working families, according to ample testimony in support of a paid sick leave ordinance at City Council meetings. Many low-income families cannot afford to miss a day of work, and are sometimes in danger of losing their jobs if they do.

"A lot of times we'll go to work sick because we don't make that much and there aren't sick days for us," said Germania Hernandez of New Labor.  "So when we're working sick it means we're also not fully aware. It puts us and our co-workers at risk not only of getting sick but of getting injured or even dying on the job."

Jason Rowe, Director of the non-profit Unity Square explained how enacting paid sick leave into law is not a unique phenomenon in the world and that many municipalities across the United States are starting to adopt their own local ordinances.

On March 18, campaign organizers in New Brunswick presented the City Council with more than 1,000 signatures calling for a paid sick leave ordinance.

Rowe's organization works to support residents of 37 square blocks in the heart of the city, and runs a community center in an old firehouse on Remsen Avenue.

He said many employees in the Unity Square neighborhood experienced negative repercussions for being ill, ultimately leaving them unemployed or working at their jobs while sick.

“What better way to increase health outcomes than to give people the opportunity to stay home from work when they’re sick, to be able to care for family members when they are sick, to not have to send sick children to school, where they will come into contact with other people’s children, and perhaps spread germs that way,” Rowe said.

Rowe says this type of law would fit perfectly within the city-sponsored initiative "Live Well-Vivir Bien," the product of a partnership with city-based Johnson & Johnson, the Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School and New Brunswick Tomorrow.

The City of New Brunswick’s website describes Live-Well-Vivir Bien as aiming “to create awareness and inspire residents to actively participate in health and wellness resources in New Brunswick, ultimately resulting in improved quality of life for residents.”

“To put this in real terms," Rowe said, "for a family with two working parents earning $10/hour, slightly above the typical family’s income in the Unity Square neighborhood, missing three days of work during illness could cost them their monthly grocery bill.”

Other members from the coalition between spoke of different experiences related to a lack of legislatively-mandated sick leave.

Graciela Campos, a New Brunswick community member, announced to the City Council that she was fired from her job earlier that same day because of her asthma:

“I was fired from my work for being sick. I was sick for two days due to coughing and asthma, and I’m here in the United States by myself, and I support myself, and I would like you guys to pass the earned sick leave.”

This issue affects many different people with diverse backgrounds and work experiences.

Rutgers University student Edisson Ortega spoke about the burden of working and going to school at the same time,and how the stress is  compounded due to the lack of job security due to illness.

Leticia Ramirez was one of more than a dozen speakers who have raised the issue at recent Council meetings.

Ramirez told the Council she could not receive paid sick leave after her daughter was hospitalized for little under a week, forcing her to take time off from work.

“For seven years I worked in the fast food industry. In 2008, my child was sick and she was hospitalized for five days. During this time I was not paid for the day I took off.”

Rodriguez continued to explain that she was present in Jersey City when they passed their ordinance on paid sick leave and hoped to see the same in the Hub City:

“Two years ago I was helping out the Jersey City campaign for earned sick leave, and I would like the same to happen here in New Brunswick. That way the parents can take care of our children when they are sick.”

The New Brunswick City Council  seemed receptive to the community members who spoke at the meeting, and Council President Kevin Egan has a background in labor issues.  He works as a business representative for IBEW union – International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers.

Egan’s father, New Jersey Assemblyman and Deputy Majority Leader Joseph Egan, is also the financial secretary and business manager of the local 456 IBEW Chapter and is the chair of the State’s Labor Committee.

Assemblyman Egan voted for a statewide paid sick leave that passed his committee, but the bill still needs approval of both houses and the Governor.

For New Jersey's towns and cities, however, there is a model ordinance that already exists and helped guide nine different municipalities in drafting their legislation, making it easier for politicians to pursue.

But while the New Brunswick City Council seems largely in favor of the private-sector paid sick leave law, one puzzle piece is still missing from the overall picture: support from Mayor James Cahill.

"He is still researching it," said Cahill spokesperson Jennifer Bradshaw on April 16.

"Unity Square has reached out to both the Mayor and Council about this issue, I know he isn't opposed to discussing it," Bradshaw said.

Although there are many nations around the world that require paid sick leave, the United States still has not adopted a federal law that mandates companies to offer that to their workers.  Still, most American employers, including governments, choose to offer sick leave to all but the lowest-level workers.

For example, federal employees are entitled to 13 paid sick days per year.

But businesses like restaurants, grocery stores, and other retail jobs typically don't allow most of their workers time off if they are ill, and workers can lose their jobs if they don't find someone to cover their shift.

Another benefit of passing a sick leave municipal law is that it could relieve a lot of stress on the city's two major hospitals.  Emergency rooms are busier, advocates argue, when people are forced to pass up and miss out on preventative care appointments due to the inability to miss work.  

Two studies were presented to the Council, along with the proposal, which discuss how earned sick leave positively affects emergency rooms.

The first is a 2011 study by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, which describes how passing earned sick on the Federal level would result in 1.3 million fewer emergency room visits on an annual basis.

The second study shows a more focused examination on Newark, where an earned sick leave ordinance was passed.  It showed a decrease in 1,900 non-emergencies  brought to the emergency rooms, saving the City of Newark around $1 million in costs.

Further, advocates say the city's vibrant food and restaurant culture, could benefit from the reputation that workers don't come into work sick, as well as non-food-based establishments, since it reduces a serious risk of getting patrons and other employees sick.

“The Middlesex County Board of Health strongly advices restaurant workers to stay home when ill with communicable diseases,” writes Rowe, “and requires their managers to encourage them to do the same (N.J.A.C. 8:24-2.2).”

Earned sick leave as part of the municipal law is heavily beneficial to both the restaurant and cafe owners, Rowe said, as well with the patrons that frequent them.

According to a map published by Slate, the United States is one of several countries around the world that does not have legislation defining earned sick leave, including Suriname, Somalia, Chad, Angola, India, and Syria.

The U.S. the only first-world, "developed" country that does not have federal paid sick leave laws.

Instead, the U.S. leaves the decision of earned sick leave up to the employers, except in a handful of cities where it has been mandated.

President Barack Obama's White House estimates that 43 million private-sector workers are without any paid sick leave.  Obama has called for paid sick leave and gone so far as to mention it as a priority in his State of the Union address in January.

The White House furthered the cause by creating a new initiative with the Department of Labor called “Lead on Leave,” where Secretary of Labor Thomas Perez and White House Senior Advisor Valerie Jarrett are traveling across the United States to promote paid sick leave on the municipal and state levels.

"Too many workers are unable to take the time they need to recover from an illness," reads a White House report.  "Many workers will go to work sick, putting their coworkers and customers at risk of illness. And even if workers have access to paid sick leave for themselves, they may not be able to use it to care for sick children."

"This forces many parents to choose between taking an unpaid day off work—losing much needed income and potentially threatening his or her job—and sending a child who should be home in bed to school.”

In 2006, San Francisco voters approved the first law creating the right to earned sick leave in the United States, sparking what has gradually become a national movement.  All California workers will soon be guaranteed sick leave, after a new law goes into effect in July.

The movement has been gaining a lot of momentum, and received an important victory in 2013 when New York City passed a bill into law ensuring that millions of New York residents would get paid sick time.

Philadelphia followed suit by passing sick day legislation that will be in effect in May, allowing workers to receive an hour of sick leave for every forty hours worked.

Jersey City became the first city in New Jersey to adopt paid sick leave legislation in 2013. Since then, Newark, Paterson, Passaic, Montclair, East Orange, Irvington, and Bloomfield have passed similar legislation.

In Trenton, voters implemented the law by way of a public initative on the ballot in November that passed with 86% of the vote.

A lawsuit seeking to stop its implementation in Trenton was thrown out last month, upholding its legitimacy and giving another reason for municipalities to give it the green light, advocates say.

The City of Plainfield's Council voted down a sick leave law earlier this month, and hopes for a state legislation are largely dependent on a new Governor taking office in 2018, leaving New Brunswick as a key battleground.

Millions of people across the United States suffer negative effects from not having paid sick leave.

About 74% of full-time workers get paid sick leave while just 24% of part-time workers enjoy the benefit, according to federal statistics cited by CNN.

CNN's reporting describes that the people affected tend to be from lower-income areas, work for small businesses, and also predominantly Hispanic.

New Brunswick is well known for having an abundance of small businesses and a substantial immigrant community, many from Latin America and South America.