Senate majority leader: N.J. should approve more sick days, leaves during pandemic for essential workers

Senator Loretta Weinberg | May 5, 2020 | Star-Ledger |

The ongoing fight against COVID-19 has strained our healthcare system, shuttered many businesses, and put the lives and livelihoods of working people and their families at risk. As I am thinking about what we can do as elected officials to make people safer and our society more resilient so that we are prepared for future crises, I am deeply struck by how fragile access to healthcare is for many of the workers now considered “essential.” There are some simple, common-sense proposals that our state Legislature could enact now that would go a long way to make more New Jersey families safer and healthier in good times and bad.

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, I worked with partners in the labor movement to guarantee access to healthcare for 10,000 passenger service workers at Newark Liberty International Airport through the Healthy Terminals Act (S.989). While this historic pandemic continues to grow, thousands of airport service workers cannot go to the doctor without setting off a personal financial crisis. Allowing airport employers to skimp on healthcare for the people who handle our bags, push your wheelchairs and clean our airplanes is clearly against the public interest. It’s not fair to ask any “essential employees” to work without the protections and safeguards that come with access to health insurance.

Right now, many workers are unjustly forced to choose between protecting their health and protecting their job. New Jersey’s paid sick leave law provides a minimum of five sick days for almost all full-time workers. For a worker attempting to self-quarantine for two weeks, five days is far from enough. And these workers cannot afford unpaid leave, or to risk their jobs if they skip work. While the federal government is providing 10 additional paid sick days for many workers affected by the COVID-19 pandemic through the Emergency Family and Medical Leave Act passed on March 18th, the new law excludes large employers, including many of those who employ contracted workers at Newark Liberty.

New Jersey should be better prepared to ensure adequate paid sick leave if and when the next health emergency arrives. The Legislature should consider legislation that would automatically increase the number of paid sick days during statewide health emergencies to 15 days. Sick workers should be able to stay home to care for themselves or family members and prevent contagion during a health emergency.

At the start of this emergency, New Jersey passed A3848, a law that protects the jobs of people who contract COVID-19. In concert with this idea, we should also pass legislation to protect the jobs of people who use New Jersey’s robust Family Leave Insurance program to care for family members with COVID-19. With the uncertainty that comes with caring for those who contract this little-known disease, people need to be able to focus on caring for their loved ones without worrying they are putting a needed family paycheck at risk.

In a similar vein, when the state shuts down all schools, Family Leave should be extended to parents who must stay at home with their children. Social distancing measures mean that many families cannot use the child care options normally available to them. Essential workers need childcare support, through Family Leave Insurance or other means.

With some simple adjustments to existing programs, New Jersey could be well-prepared for the emergency of tomorrow. We cannot always count on the federal government to do what is right, we should work together as fellow New Jerseyans to strengthen ourselves and our state.