NJ lawmakers advance paid sick leave, gender equity bills

New Jersey lawmakers advanced legislation Monday that would mandate all workers receive paid sick time, and two bills aimed at ensuring women receive equal pay on the job.

The sick leave bill was approved by the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee by a narrow 7-6 vote. Two bills to toughen discrimination laws to ensure equal pay and create gender compensation reporting requirements for state contractors were passed 3-2 from the Assembly State and Local Government Committee.

All three have received support from union and worker advocacy groups but have drawn opposition from business groups.

The sick leave bill would require all public and private sector employees to accrue one hour of earned sick leave for every 30 hours of work, but would allow towns with existing policies or laws that are more generous to remain in place.

Earned sick time could be used by employees to recover from or receive treatment for a mental or physical illness or injury, as well as care for a family member. Employers with more than 10 workers would be permitted to cap the amount of sick time an employee may accrue at 72 hours (nine days). Those with fewer than 10 workers could cap the amount at 40 hours (five days).

The bill was passed by the full Senate during the last two-year session but was never voted on by the full Assembly.

Supporters claim more than 1 million New Jersey workers aren't able to take paid sick leave and are forced to choose between their jobs and caring for either themselves or a loved one.

Opponents claim the mandate would be a burden on businesses and would interfere with existing sick policies.

Sen. Loretta Weinberg, who is the prime sponsor of the legislation, said California, Connecticut, Massachusetts and Oregon have passed laws mandating employers to provide minimum amounts of earned sick time, as have several cities, including Jersey City.

"And believe it or not, as far as I know, the sky has not fallen," Weinberg, D-37th of Teaneck, said during the hearing, adding that she considered earned sick leave a "basic worker's right."

Sen. Kevin O'Toole, R-40th of Cedar Grove, said the feedback he's received from business owners was that the measure would create a tough government mandate.

"It's tough to run a business when you have additional restraint on them," O'Toole said. "It makes it really, really hard on them."

"I think we're at a time in New Jersey where we're starting to see (economic) growth," added Sen. Jennifer Beck, R-11th of Red Bank, who pointed to other proposed legislation to boost the minimum wage and create other business mandates.

"I think the timing is poor," she said.

The pay equity bills would amend the state's law against discrimination to prohibit unequal pay for "substantially similar" work, as well as extend the statute of limitations for unequal pay claims and require all government contractors in New Jersey to report employee gender and compensation information to the Department of Labor and Division of Civil Rights.

Another bill would require businesses seeking state contracts to also report employee gender and compensation information.

Dena Mottola, associate director with the advocacy group New Jersey Citizen Action, told the committee that gender discrimination in pay is real and requires legislative action.

She said the proposed bills boost transparency surrounding wages and also hold businesses accountable if they are found guilty of discrimination.

"Yes, the legislation does strengthen women's hands should they feel they need to go to court and make a case around wage disparity. This is a good thing," Mottola said.

Assemblyman Jay Webber, R-26th of Morris Plains, said the bills would only help plaintiff attorneys.

"My concern is that bills like this and others will hurt our economy more than they will help the gender pay equity issue you're advancing. I fully support equal pay for equal work," Webber said. "What I don't support is an engraved invitation to the New Jersey plaintiffs bar — which is already very, very powerful and doing quite well — to make themselves even richer at the expense of small-business men and women, and in the end destroy jobs for men and women."

Business groups have opposed the measure, claiming that it surpasses both federal law and discrimination case law, and that the reporting requirements would be a burden on small businesses and drive up costs for public contracts.

Committee chairman Troy Singleton, D-7th of Palmyra, said that pay discrimination may already be outlawed but that many employers still aren't providing equal pay.

"We haven't seen the action meet the sort of rhetoric of the actual language (in existing law)," Singleton said.


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