The New Fight Over Sick Leave Has New Twist

This year's proposal may include rule pre-empting local government action

NJBIZ — Monday, May 11, 2015


The battle over paid sick leave is coming back to Trenton.

This time, however, it's a different fight.

While there's just as much raw support now among Democratic lawmakers for a statewide bill as there was a year ago, advocacy groups on both sides of the issue may be taking a second look. That's because a new version of the bill could come with an amendment that would preempt local governments from adding to any statewide sick leave requirements that would be enacted.

Sources have told NJBIZ that the bill — potentially with such a pre-emption — could resurface by the end of this month.

Sponsored by Assemblywoman Pamela Lampitt (D-Voorhees) and other Democrats in the Assembly, the statewide bill as it is currently proposed would allow full- and part-time employees to earn an hour of paid sick time for every 30 hours worked. A 72-hour-per-year cap would be in place for workers at businesses with 10 or more employees, while those at businesses with nine or fewer workers would adhere to a 40-hour-per-year cap.

That version of the bill would not stop municipalities from going further than the state in their paid sick leave requirements: While one hour of sick time for every 30 hours worked would be a base that all businesses in New Jersey would have to comply with, municipalities would essentially be in their rights to increase that threshold for companies within their jurisdictions.

Nine New Jersey municipalities have now adopted their own local ordinances regarding sick leave. Jersey City was the first to do so, enacting its ordinance in September 2013.

Business groups have long opposed, and continue to oppose, a statewide sick leave measure in any form, arguing it's just another unnecessary mandate imposed on the state's business community. Still, they say, a local pre-emption would at least provide a uniformed code under which all businesses would have to comply.

That might sound like an opportunity for compromise, but for New Jersey Citizen Action, one of the groups that supports the current statewide bill, it's a nonstarter.

"We're not going to support a bill with pre-emption in it," said Dena Mottola Jaborska, director of organizing and strategic program development for the advocacy group.

The existing version has been staunchly opposed by groups like the New Jersey Chamber of Commerce. Michael Egenton, the chamber's senior vice president of government relations, is still against the statewide bill on the whole, especially when viewed in the context of other mandates that Trenton has placed on the business community.

"At the end of the day, the basic concern overall is legislation like this and others interfering in the free enterprise business operations of the business owner," Egenton said. "It's something we believe government shouldn't be intruding on."

Compromise might not be the right word, but Egenton thinks there may be room on this issue to work in the Legislature and make it a little more palatable for the business community to take.

He points to last year's Opportunity to Compete Act, also known as "ban-the-box," as an example.

For roughly three years, Egenton worked on the bill, which limits employers from conducting criminal background checks on job applicants until after a first interview has taken place. And while it was clear from the start that the business community would ultimately not support the bill, he said the constructive dialogue on the issue that took place between the various stakeholders yielded an end result that at least had something, even if minimal, for everyone involved.

"At the end, it was a more tolerable, acceptable piece of legislation," Egenton said.

For paid sick leave, state Sen. Paul Sarlo (D-Wood-Ridge) appeared to broach the issue of a pre-emption during a public appearance last month. Speaking at a New Jersey Chamber of Commerce breakfast roundtable, he questioned the logic behind giving each of New Jersey's 565 municipalities the ability to set their own sick leave standards while still adhering to a statewide law.

Former Assemblyman Joe Cryan (D-Union), who left his office in January to become Union County Sheriff, also seemed concerned. According to PolitickerNJ, Cryan voiced displeasure over the measure late last year when it was before the Assembly Budget Committee, reportedly calling it a "mess."

There are now signs that last year's version could be tweaked. In a statement given to NJBIZ, state Sen. Loretta Weinberg (D-Teaneck), the statewide bill's sponsor in the Senate, didn't close the door on future amendments to the measure, including local pre-emption.

"Workers in New Jersey deserve i policy that will ensure they do not have tc choose between taking a sick day and putting food on the table," Weinberg said. "I am working with the Assembly sponsors to advance this measure and discussing the potential for amendments to the legislation. We expect the Senate will take up the bill once it moves out of the Assembly."

A similar sentiment was expressed by Tom Hester Jr., spokesman for the Assembly Majority Office.

"Earned sick leave is good for the state's economy and remains a top priority," Hester said. "As always, and as he promised to do, the speaker continues to work cooperatively and gather input from everyone involved in the issue as the Assembly moves toward a vote."

But Mottola Jaborska says she has been given no indication from the lawmakers with whom she has worked on this issue that local pre-emption is even up for consideration.

"I don't think any of the leadership seriously thinks a bill with pre-emption is a bill they're going to move forward," she said.

While Mottola Jaborska said it's "really important that the bill we pass statewide be strong," municipalities should still have the right to go "above and beyond" with their own ordinances.

"We don't want to see those laws go away," Mottola Jaborska said.

Deborah Cornavaca, legislative director for New Jersey Working Families, said that while the passage of a strong statewide bill would be something to cheer, one that had a local pre-emption "would not be the celebration we're looking to achieve."

Cornavaca said that the last thing the bill should look to do is discourage or inhibit innovative action on the municipal level. Had it not been for cities like Jersey City and Newark taking action on the municipal level to begin with, Cornavaca doubts there would be such momentum for a statewide bill in Trenton.

"We don't believe it's a mutually exclusive choice," Cornavaca said.

Stefanie Riehl, vice president of employment and labor policy for the New Jersey Business & Industry Association, and others in the business community would prefer to see a local preemption amendment added to the measure. But they would be much happier if it were done away with altogether.

"The local ordinances are definitely a concern for us," Riehl said. "That's because the local ordinances would subject businesses to a patchwork of regulation. That said, we're still not supportive of a statewide policy.

"Would it be a little bit more predictable? Yeah, it would be more predictable for businesses, but it could still result in a system that's just simply unworkable for many small businesses."

Towns with laws

A look at the nine towns that have passed paid sick leave legislation:


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