Workers in Newark shouldn’t have to choose between coming to work sick or losing a day’s pay — or worse yet, their job.
Every year, Americans hear the same recommendation from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Anyone with flu-like symptoms should stay home from work or school. Sometimes even President Obama repeats the advice: “If you are sick, stay home,” he said recently. “If your children are sick, keep them out of school.”
But in Newark, 38,000 workers must go to work ill because they can’t afford to lose a day’s pay when they are barely able to make ends meet and support their families.
Take Gestrudes Contreras, who cleans aircraft cabins for Prime Flight Services at Newark Airport, one of the busiest airports in the country. Like thousands of other Newark airport workers, Gestrudes must go to work ill because she can’t afford to lose a day’s pay when she is barely able to make ends meet on the minimum wage.
Or look at Safiyyah Muhammad, who works in Newark to help support people with disabilities. Safiyyah has also gone to work sick and even sent her sick children to school because she couldn’t risk losing the paycheck that goes to therapy for her autistic son.
These stories are unacceptable, and there are too many of them. Twenty-three percent of all workers will either lose their job or be threatened with job loss for taking time to deal with an illness. No worker should have to choose between coming to work sick or losing a day’s pay — or worse yet, their job.
That’s why I’m proposing earned sick-leave legislation in Newark. Paid sick leave is a basic workplace right — one that all working families should have. This proposal will allow Newark workers to earn sick leave based on the number of hours they put in. Full- and part-time employees would earn one hour of paid sick time for every 30 hours worked, for up to five sick days. They can then use the hours they’ve earned to either recover from an illness or help take care of a sick family member.
More than 1.2 million New Jerseyans can’t earn a single sick day. Most Newark residents fall into demographic groups that disproportionately lack earned sick time. Newark’s poverty rate is greater than 50 percent, and 8 in 10 of the working poor can’t earn sick days. More than half of Newark residents are African-American, 44 percent of whom don’t have paid sick days. Among Latinos — one third of Newark’s population — a full 55 percent lack paid sick days. This must change.
The opportunity to earn sick leave should be a fundamental worker’s right, but the measure isn’t meant to protect just workers. More than 3 in 4 food service and hotel workers can’t earn sick days. Workers without paid sick leave serve our food, care for our children and staff our nursing homes. Allowing them to take the time to get better protects us all from contagious illnesses.
Businesses should welcome this law. Workers in cities and states that have guaranteed sick days haven’t abused them and their economies are doing well. Newark’s business owners will benefit from lower turnover as well as healthier and more productive employees. It’s a law that will strengthen families, protect the public health and safeguard the workforce that is the backbone of our city’s economy.
Passing this legislation will put Newark at the forefront of a nationwide movement for earned sick-day legislation. Momentum for earned sick leave is building around the country, and working families in New Jersey are counting on their elected officials to speak out for them.
As Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop, who last week proposed earned sick-time legislation in our sister city, said: “This is a matter of human dignity.”
It is one I urge my council colleagues to act on now.