Last month, a committee in the New Jersey state legislature approved a bill that would require businesses to let their employees earn paid sick leave. Allowing workers to stay home when they’re ill or to take care of sick children without losing their jobs might seem like a no-brainer. But the state’s Republican governor, Chris Christie, sounded the conservative alarm. Referring to towns in the state that already have paid-sick leave ordinances, he said a statewide law could hurt the New Jersey’s economy.
“These towns that are doing it just continue to make New Jersey less and less competitive,” Christie said. “And then when businesses leave the state, they want to know why.”
The towns and cities in New Jersey and around the country that have already passed such laws, though, say they have no such problem. San Francisco was the first city to pass one in 2006; since then, 14 other cities and three states have followed suit. These types of laws were undefeated at the ballot box in November, when voters in Massachusetts, Oakland, Trenton and Montclair, New Jersey approved them. A national bill was introduced in the last Congress but it seems unlikely to pass on the federal level, so advocates have focused on states and cities.
This year, in addition to New Jersey, laws are pending in Maryland, Oregon, and Philadelphia, where the mayor has twice vetoed it but appears to have now softened his stance. Potential presidential contenders for 2016 like Christie may prove especially important in how and whether the laws progress: what Christie does could signal whether he’s truly a moderate who will support a popular new law that helps his state’s neediest citizens, or whether he will adopt the views of the national party that has hardened its stance against anything that displeases its corporate overlords.
As many as 40 million Americans don’t have paid sick leave, mostly those who work in low income service sectors who do not have the kinds of benefit packages allowing paid time off that white-collar professions take for granted. They benefit the most from these new rules, but the laws enjoy a broad base of support—in 2010, 86 percent of the public supported them—in part because they address public-health concerns. No one wants to be served by a waitress or a cook who has a cold, and no one wants a sick child to be forced to go to school because her parents aren’t allowed or can’t afford to miss work.
When Connecticut became the first state in the nation to pass a statewide law requiring sick leave in 2011, a dozen Democrats in the state legislature voted against it, concerned about what it would do to businesses. The state’s then-newly elected governor, Dannel P. Malloy, had an unusually progressive agenda that included new taxes on the rich. At the time, these laws didn’t seem destined for a national movement, but had been championed by a liberal third-party in the state, the Working Families Party.
Since taking care of sick children was, and still is, a mom’s job to a large degree, paid-sick leave was seen as being part of a nebulous “work-life balance” agenda that didn’t rank as a primary economic concern. After Connecticut, however, that proved an antiquated view. New York City Council Speaker Christine Quinn helped scuttle that city’s popular paid-sick leave bill, and it may have helped lead to her downfall in the Democratic primary race in 2013.
Since then, the rising gap between the rich and middle- and lower-income families has risen to the fore. The economy has begun to add jobs, but the quality of those jobs is an increasing concern. That’s especially true for women, who are more likely than men to be stuck in low-paying jobs that don’t offer benefits and yet are still the primary caregivers for children and elderly relatives. Hopefuls for 2016 like Hillary Clinton are talking more and more about the kinds of issues that were once thought to be a side concern of women—but are now seen as key to the financial health of the country.
“It gets at the coarse inequality, the gross inequality, that now characterizes the society,” says Dan Cantor, national director of the Working Families Party. “This is a small piece of the puzzle, but it’s one we can wrap our arms fully around and can do something about.”
The issue polls well among Democratic, Republican, and independent voters. Yet the bills around the country have mostly been sponsored by Democrats, and Republicans may be hardening their opposition to them. Americans for Prosperity, the conservative political action committee that is highly influential with Republicans, decries these types of laws as anti-business measures that will cost jobs. The organization’s New Jersey director, Daryn Iwicki, even wrote a letter to the editor in the Newark Star-Ledger arguing against the pro-sick-leave stance of a local business owner who offers sick leave to his own employees. “[T]he lesson of his own success eludes him: the idea that free-market competition, not government intervention, promotes opportunity and choice,” Iwicki wrote.
This all means that what Christie does in New Jersey could be a bell-weather to the national political tone shaping up for the presidential election year. The bill has to pass the state’s General Assembly, but, even if it does, advocates are uncertain that Christie will sign it. If he did, it could be a sign that our politicians are ready to resume genuine policy-making across party lines. If he doesn’t, it would signal more political gamesmanship that ignores the real concerns of average Americans in 2016.
Monica Potts is a fellow at the New America Foundation.