Small Wins Led to a Big Victory for Paid Sick Leave Advocates in New Jersey

“Once you have [paid sick leave] in place in a few localities, you’re not talking about these issues from a theoretical perspective. You’re talking about real-life benefits and real-life people.”

[Photo: A girl with a broken finger drinks a beverage with the help of a parent]
While city laws eventually covered 10 percent of the state’s workforce, they left more than a million workers without paid leave benefits. Shutterstock

After four years of organizing, winning more than a dozen victories at the local level, and trying unsuccessfully to pass a statewide bill, advocates for paid sick leave in New Jersey finally achieved their goal: a law requiring nearly all employers to give workers at least five days of paid leave if they or their family members get sick, or if they need to recover from domestic or sexual violence.

Gov. Phil Murphy’s (D) signature today makes New Jersey the tenth state in the US to guarantee a right to paid sick leave, a benefit that comes standard in all other developed countries.

With former Gov. Chris Christie (R) in office, it was clear that a statewide bill was, at best, a long shot. So in 2013, advocates set their sights on municipalities. “The whole impetus behind it was, what progressive victories can we rack up despite having governor Christie in office, and what issues can we lead on that promote shared economic prosperity?” said Louis Di Paolo, legislative director at New Jersey Working Families Alliance. “It was a real long-term campaign.”

Their first target was Jersey City, where they pitched the idea to newly minted Mayor Steven Fulop and the city council. They passed a paid leave bill into law in 2013.

Working in advocates’ favor was that while the state blocks cities and localities from going their own on some policies, such as increasing the minimum wage, paid sick leave was fair game. State law allows for putting issues before voters via a ballot referendum if 10 percent of the people who voted in the prior election sign on. Advocates gathered the necessary signatures in East Orange, Irvington, Passaic, Paterson, Montclair, and Trenton—some of the largest cities in the state. In four of them, the local government officials acted on their own; voters in Montclair and Trenton gave their approval.

“It got to the point where in three or four years we had 13 of the biggest cities in New Jersey” with paid sick leave policies, Di Paolo said. “That paved the way for us to insert the issue into the gubernatorial campaign.” As candidates vied to replace Christie after his term was up last year, it became a hot political issue, and it was “quickly adopted and championed by every Democratic primary candidate.” New governor Phil Murphy made it a core part of his economic agenda.

While city laws eventually covered 10 percent of the state’s workforce, they left more than a million workers without paid leave benefits. “New Jersey has 565 municipalities,” Di Paolo said, “so while 13 of the biggest was a big help, [the people] who don’t work in those cities weren’t covered.” Advocates knew they would need a statewide standard.

Having passed so many local laws was crucial to the statewide bill’s passage. It meant that many state lawmakers represented constituents who already had paid sick leave benefits. “It was very difficult for legislators to speak out against,” Di Paolo said.

Cities proved that sick leave could benefit workers without harming the economy, despite what business lobbies across the United States have argued. “The sky didn’t fall, jobs didn’t plummet or leave,” Di Paolo said. “You weren’t seeing any widespread abuse or unintended side effects.” In Jersey City, the majority of employers reported ease with complying, and many saw benefits such as increased productivity or lower turnover. That’s been the case elsewhere: Employers in Connecticut, New York City, and Washington D.C. haven’t reported any significant costs or problems, while job growth stayed strong in Connecticut, San Francisco, and Seattle.

“Legislators are kind of afraid of the unknown and can be spooked by unintended consequences,” Di Paolo said. Cities’ experiences made it more palatable.

Advocates brought together a diverse group to fight for paid leave benefits for all workers. “We built a pretty broad coalition that represented the different types of people who were most in need of earned sick time and who didn’t have it,” said Dena Mottola Jaborska, associate director at New Jersey Citizen Action. That coalition included labor groups that work with low-wage workers such as OUR Walmart and Make the Road New Jersey, women’s groups like Planned Parenthood and the League of Women Voters, and seniors’ groups like AARP. These organizations recognized that “it’s something everybody needs,” she said. “Everybody gets sick, everyone is part of a family has someone they might need to care for.”

The state bill includes some improvements over the city paid leave measures: it has no carve out for smaller employers, meaning everyone is covered no matter how many people work at their companies. It applies to full-time and part-time workers and it takes a generous view of who counts as family, mandating leave not just to care for grandparents and in-laws, but anyone a worker designates as “chosen family.”

It took aggressive advocacy to get such a strong law, though there were some compromises. Licensed per diem health-care workers aren’t covered, nor are public-sector workers whose employers offer paid sick leave. The law pre-empts cities from going any further on their own. Advocates had hoped to secure a minimum of seven days instead of five. “There were lots of compromises we didn’t want to make, but ultimately the result is a bill that does move the ball forward,” Mottola Jaborska said.

The bill’s passage could give them momentum to move forward on some other workplace issues. Next up will be trying to expand the state’s paid family leave program—New Jersey is one of five states with one—so that it offers 12 weeks of benefits instead of six and far more wage replacement for low-wage workers. Democrats passed such a bill last year, but Christie vetoed it. Advocates also hope to address chaotic scheduling and to increase the state’s minimum wage.

New Jersey’s experience can be a lesson for other states that may not have governors who are friendly to paid sick leave. “If a statewide victory isn’t possible, starting at the local level definitely works,” Di Paolo said. “Once you have it in place in a few localities, you’re not talking about these issues from a theoretical perspective. You’re talking about real-life benefits and real-life people.”