Analilia Mejia has only been working as the executive director of New Jersey Working Families for a less than a year, but she has deep roots when it comes to caring about paid sick days. “My commitment to all of this essentially began as a child watching my parents go from paycheck to paycheck, struggling to make a decent living,” she said. “I remember having to stay at home with my older sister because I had the chicken pox… My dad asked a neighbor to come in and out and watch us because both my parents had to work.”
Things only changed when her mother got a better job. “When you go from being a kid that watches your parents worry about groceries and feeding you and you see them liberated from that fear, it allows you to dream and believe that things can get better and will get better in a way I can’t even describe.”
“I’m firmly committed to replicating that for others, paying that forward,” she said. And she, along with a handful of other groups and activists, have done just that for a huge number of people living in New Jersey.
Many groups across the country have advocated for paid sick days laws that require employers to let their workers earn leave for when they or their family members fall ill. And there have been successes along the way: as of last year, seven laws had been passed. But that progress has seen a huge speed up this year, with heavy concentration in New Jersey. After Jersey City passed a law in October last year and Newark followed suit in January, September saw a rash of wins in the state: four different cities in about a week all passed laws. That’s the biggest wave of success in the history of the movement ever.
It’s thanks to the launch of a concerted campaign begun by Mejia’s group along with New Jersey Citizen Action, New Jersey Time to Care, labor unions, community groups, workers, and others. The current effort traces back to when New Jersey became the second state ever to institute paid family leave and advocates who were working on that bill pivoted their focus to working on a statewide paid sick days law. But when Gov. Chris Christie (R) was elected, he came in vowing to undo the family leave law, dimming hopes of paid sick days.
Then New York City passed a paid sick leave law in June of 2013 and New Jersey’s activists were inspired to take another tactic. “Once New York happened, some things clicked,” Mejia said. “We shared information [with the organizers in New York], we looked at what folks were able to do, the coalitions they were able to build in New York City and realized we had an opportunity to shift our strategy in New Jersey and get a lot of workers covered and build momentum.”
Phyllis Salowe-Kaye, the executive director of New Jersey Citizen Action, said that the idea to target municipalities in the state was floated by local unions. “We agreed that it was going to be very difficult to get the governor to sign a statewide bill,” she said. But “we had two quite progressive mayors in Jersey City and in Newark… We knew that they could institute it as an ordinance in their cities, as opposed to having to wait for a state bill.”
New Jersey also has a unique process for how citizens can get involved in policy-making. Under the Faulkner Act, many municipalities allow residents to canvass for signatures on a particular issue. If they gather enough, the issue gets put before the city council, and lawmakers can either allow it to move to the ballot or decide to take it up as a law themselves. Often, Mejia said, “elected officials do the math and see that this is something that their constituents support and they should take action.” That’s what has happened in the cities of East Orange, Irvington, Passaic, and Paterson.
The targeted municipalities — those four plus Montclair and Trenton — were picked for a number of reasons: polling showed widespread support, there were partners on the ground, and they were large cities with large voting blocs — all the better to put pressure on state lawmakers and the governor. “We bit off what we thought we could chew given the time and resources we had,” Salowe-Kaye said. It was also important that the groups put forward the exact same ordinance in every city so that the opposition couldn’t claim there were so many different versions as to make it impossible to implement and to fend off legal challenges.
Their successes seemed to surprise even them. While speaking with Mejia, word came in that Irvington had not just passed paid sick leave, but the mayor had already signed it, something her group didn’t know was going to happen.
But it was also the result of very deliberate work. The leaders of the campaign were all experienced: “These are not rookies,” Salowe-Kaye said. “Several people on my staff and several leaders had extensive experience doing ballot initiatives in the past, whether on rent control or environmental issues or for auto insurance.” There was also a lot of groundwork previously laid that they could call upon. “We had an already organized small business community,” she pointed out. New Jersey small business owners who are members of the Main Street Alliance had worked with them on the Affordable Care Act, minimum wage increases, and paid family leave.
The coalition brought together a wide swath of people: labor unions, senior citizen groups, community groups, religious groups, and even environmental groups. “Teachers got involved because they are on the front lines seeing children come to school sick because a parent can’t care for the child,” Mejia said. “We had young people testify in some municipalities talking about how they bore witness to…their parents’ struggle not being able to stay home to care for themselves or their children because they had to make rent.”
Progress in one place begot progress in another. When Jersey City was the first in the state to pass a law, “it wanted to be better than New York,” Salowe-Kaye said. Newark then “wanted to be better than Jersey City.”
Lawmakers, unsurprisingly, talked to each other about their experiences. “The mayor of Newark called the mayor of Jersey City to ask what do you think of this,” Mejia said. “They all talk to each other, all help each other, all inform each other. Each win helps inform the next.”
While the state’s Faulkner Act is somewhat unique, there are lessons to be learned for activists elsewhere. “Some things are most certainly transferrable and are being used by campaigns across the country,” Mejia said. The domino effect can happen elsewhere. “The idea that one win builds on another, mayors talk to each other, city council members talk to each other” can be used anywhere, she said.
Activists can also reach out to small business owners, educate elected officials, and let the public know about the benefits not just for social justice reasons, but for public health reasons. “This is an issue that impacts pretty much every family, every person,” she said. “Every family at one time or another experienced an illness of a child.” Plus even those with paid sick days themselves may be served food or have their children cared for by those who don’t.
“We have an issue that is widely and strongly felt by many,” Salowe-Kaye said.