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Employers groups blast Fulop bill to require paid sick leave for private sector

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Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop's plan to make his city the first in New Jersey to require employers to provide paid sick days is drawing support from unions and advocacy groups, but opposition from business lobbyists — who are also fighting a bill in Trenton that would mandate paid sick time for all New Jersey workers.

Fulop said the city council could approve, by the end of this month, his bill requiring employers with more than 10 workers to allow both full and part-time workers to earn up to five paid sick days a year. Workers would accrue one hour of sick time for every 40 hours worked, up to 40 hours a year.

Also under Fulop's bill, employers with nine or fewer workers would be have to provide up to five unpaid sick days a year. Fulop said after one year, the city will commission a study by Rutgers of the impact of paid sick leave "to make sure we are on the right track." 

"This is a human dignity issue, and is a policy that ultimately benefits" employers, Fulop said to NJBIZ today. "A sick employee is not a productive employee, and I think they should recognize this."

In May, Assemblywoman Pamela Lampitt (D-Voorhees) introduced a bill, A-4125, to require employers to give workers one hour of sick leave for every 30 hours worked, capped at five days a year for employers with fewer than 10 workers, and nine days for those with 10 or more.

But these measures are a cost to employers, said Michael Egenton, senior vice president of government relations for the New Jersey Chamber of Commerce, which opposes both bills.

"This will have a detrimental impact," he said.

"There are very limited decisions that an employer can make to reach their bottom line. And if it means not hiring the additional employee they wanted to hire, or scaling back hours or modifying benefits — whatever they have to do to reach their bottom line — they will do," Egenton said. "That is the reality of how employers deal with mandates that come out of Trenton or cities like Jersey City."

Laurie Ehlbeck, state director of the National Federation of Independent Business, whose members are predominately small businesses, said, "We feel that employers, and small employers particularly, should be able to make their own decisions about their staff based on what they can afford and for the smooth running of their company."

She said most small businesses "are very tolerant and flexible because they have small staffs, they know the people, and they don't feel they are getting taken advantage of. So if there is a sick child at home, or a sick parent, they are going to be flexible."

Asked if employers are concerned workers would abuse paid sick time, and take their sick days regardless of their health, Ehlbeck said, "I don't think that's the biggest concern, but I know it is a concern."

Phil Kirschner, president of the New Jersey Business & Industry Association, said paid sick-leave mandates would burden small employers "who are facing a number of issues that really threaten their operations. They are looking at a possible increase in the minimum wage, health care (costs) have been going up, the unemployment insurance rates keep going up — and now to mandate sick leave is really more than they can handle."

"I think you will see a lot of businesses saying enough is enough," he said, "particularly in an economy that is inching its way to recovery, but is not even back to where we were in 2007, for most businesses."

Maria L. Nieves, chief executive of the Hudson County Chamber of Commerce, said, "We certainly applaud Mayor Fulop for his efforts to provide an environment that is hospitable for employees of Jersey City businesses, but have questions as to how this particular policy will create a business-friendly climate in Jersey City and improve unemployment in the area.

"The majority of our members are small businesses of 10 employees or less. While they are not likely to be immediately impacted by this policy, should it be enacted, those businesses that want to grow may defer adding staff as they consider all the increased costs."

One of the largest private-sector unions in the state came out in support of the bill.

"A worker should never have to choose between health and pay," said Kevin Brown, state director of 32BJ SEIU, in a statement. "Mayor Fulop and the Jersey City council should be commended for introducing paid sick leave legislation to make our workforce healthier and more productive."

Gordon MacInnes is president of the Trenton think tank New Jersey Policy Perspective, another advocate of paid sick leave.

Asked about the outlook for the Lampitt bill in Trenton, he said, "It will be easier to make that judgment after Jersey City takes action on its bill. Jersey City is setting a strong example, and it (the Lampitt bill) will receive attention and generate interest that probably did not exist earlier, so I think it's very helpful."

Then there's Joe Scott, chief executive of Jersey City Medical Center. He's in favor of the Fulop bill, also, and said his hospital provides paid sick time to its employees.

"I don't think it does anybody any good — especially small businesses that, a lot of times, are food establishments — to have somebody sick," he said. "We always encourage people to stay home, especially during flu season, so I think it's a matter of good public policy."

He said paid sick days in Jersey City, "might help my emergency department" to avoid overcrowding.

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