The Star-Ledger

Earned Sick-Days Law Changes Workplaces For The Better

Over a million workers in New Jersey do not earn a single paid sick day.

The Star-Ledger — April 30, 2018

Yarrow Willman-Cole and Dena Mottola Jaborska
Guest Columnists

Nancy Vargas has worked full time in a factory for six years and has never been given paid sick days. She once missed several days of work when she was hospitalized for a medical emergency and her employer not only did not pay her for the days she was out, he docked her for an entire week's pay. Vargas also struggles to care for her children and elderly mother who depend on her when they fall ill. With the passage of Earned Sick Days in New Jersey, Vargas can take them to doctors' appointments without losing a day's pay and can work with the assurance that she will not have to choose between taking her child to the doctor and putting food on the table.

Over a million workers in New Jersey do not earn a single paid sick day. Many are working in low-wage service jobs, caring for our children and the elderly, or working in restaurants serving and preparing the food we eat. Without job-protected earned sick days, these workers cannot afford to stay home, even if they are sick.

The Earned Sick and Safe Days Act, soon to be signed by the governor, will change this, making New Jersey the 10th state in the nation to ensure that workers are able to earn at least five paid sick days a year. The law applies to nearly all workers in New Jersey, including part-time workers.

The guaranteed five paid sick days is welcome news for workers in New Jersey, especially for low-wage earners. But almost more significant, the law also protects workers from retaliation by employers in the form of lost pay, lost shifts, demotions, and even worse, job loss. Unfortunately, employer retaliation against employees for taking time off for illness is a pervasive problem. And many workers, including lower-earning workers who have less employment choices, live in fear of getting sick. A survey by the National Partnership for Women and Families found that nearly one quarter of U.S. adults have been fired or threatened with job loss for taking time off to recover from an illness or caring for a dependent.

Reynalda Cruz, a mother working two part-time jobs, will also gain new protections when the law goes into effect. When she and her colleagues heard about the Earned Sick Days bill passing, they were relieved knowing that they will be able to take needed time off without fear of retaliation or pressure to work, from their employer. Once, when Cruz's daughter's school called to let her know she was sick and needed to be picked up, the hotel manager allowed her to pick her up, but told her she had to finish cleaning her rooms. So she had no choice but to bring her daughter, with a fever and chills, to work with her. When she ended her shift, her daughter's fever had gotten worse and she ended up in the hospital. Another time, she called work when her son woke up sick, but her manager told her to bring him in with her, and threatened if she didn't, her hours would be cut.

These are choices no one should be forced to make. For too long, many New Jersey workers have had to face difficult decisions between their health and their loved ones' health — or paying their bills. Earned Sick Days is a long overdue protection for workers who have had to undergo economic hardship just to care for their health.

The benefits of the new law don't end there. Nearly all workers in the state will be able to use paid sick time for more purposes than just recovering from their own illness. Time can be used to care for a broad range of family members, deal with preventative medical care, address issues related to domestic violence or sexual assault, and to attend children's school meetings.

Ultimately, everyone benefits because sick workers can stay home and out of workplaces and parents can keep their sick children out of school, places where illnesses can quickly spread. A common-sense policy, the Earned Sick Days law is truly a sea change for New Jersey workplaces.

Yarrow Willman-Cole of the Center for Women and Work at Rutgers University and Dena Mottola Jaborska of New Jersey Citizen Action are the co-conveners of the New Jersey Time to Care Coalition.

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