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Biz leaders in state of emergency over proposal

Allowing government to determine paid days off worries many

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It’s been a harsh winter, one that highlighted the need for more salt and plowing, and better cold-weather planning by the state.

But business leaders are calling one winter-related reaction a step too far.

State Sen. Peter Barnes (D-Edison) is set to introduce a bill that would allow employees unable to make it to work during a declared state of emergency to stay home without the threat of sacrificing any sick, vacation, personal or other paid or unpaid leave days.

The bill would not require businesses to close during a state of emergency, but it would fine employers who punished their employees for not showing up. Those fines would start at around $5,000.

Barnes said the bill is designed to protect workers who may feel compelled to head to work during a state of emergency. The governor has made that declaration five times this year alone.

“New Jerseyans should be able to make an objective decision to drive during a storm that reflects their own and their family’s safety rather than a fear of retribution by an employer or a loss of sick or vacation time,” Barnes said.

But the bill raises red flags for those in the state’s business community.

Michael Egenton, senior vice president for government relations with the New Jersey Chamber of Commerce, said state interference in this matter of private business seems “very concerning,” adding that employers need to make these judgments since “they know what’s essential to them.”

Also troubling to Egenton is the idea that all industries would be tied to the same set of rules. It’s one thing if you can’t go get a sandwich at the local deli during a state of emergency. It’s another if you can’t receive needed medical attention.

“You can’t put hospitals in the same category of, say, a convenience store,” Egenton said. “Some businesses are essential operations.”

David Lichtenberg, a Murray Hill-based partner at law firm Fisher & Phillips, called the bill a “knee-jerk reaction” to the tough winter the state has faced.

And looking across the country, he’s never heard of legislation tying state of emergency declarations to the workplace.

With the bill still yet to be posted, Lichtenberg said it’s unclear whether provisions such as an exemption of certain industries and allowing for telecommuting will be made.

The bill also assumes that employers are indeed offering various forms of paid time off on their own goodwill and then attempting to regulate it, a feat Lichtenberg says could be problematic for the business community.

“I think any time that the government dictates what an employer can and can’t do with its own internal policy, it creates a real friction between the state and businesses,” Lichtenberg said.

E-mail to: andrewg@njbiz.com
On Twitter: @andrgeorge

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Andrew George

Andrew George

Andrew George covers the Statehouse from NJBIZ's Trenton bureau. Born and raised in N.J., Andrew has also spent time as a reporter in D.C., Texas and Pa. His email is andrewg@njbiz.com and he is @AndrGeorge on Twitter.

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