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New Jersey Workers Are Making Paid Sick Leave A Big Question For Christie On The Campaign Trail

Protesters demonstrate in support of mandatory paid sick day policies ahead of a scheduled New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie fundraiser on Wednesday, March 25, 2015, at The Union League in Philadelphia. CREDIT: AP PHOTO/MATT ROURKE
Protesters demonstrate in support of mandatory paid sick day policies ahead of a scheduled New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie fundraiser on Wednesday, March 25, 2015, at The Union League in Philadelphia. CREDIT: AP PHOTO/MATT ROURKE

New Jersey resident Jose Vera spent eight months working in marketing at a company that did not offer its employees paid sick leave. On multiple occasions throughout the winter, he visited customers’ homes while he had the flu or severe nausea because he did not want to risk losing his job, he told ThinkProgress.

“There were quotas that had to be made and if you missed one of those days and you didn’t reach your quota that week, after two weeks you’d get fired and automatically lose your job,” he said. “At times I felt like I couldn’t do this anymore, but I had to.”

The company’s lack of a paid sick day policy was one reason Vera sought other employment — he now works as a community organizer with New Jersey Working Families (NJWF), a group advocating for legislation to guarantee that workers across the state would not risk their jobs because of their health or the health of their families.

Eighty-three percent of New Jersey residents support a paid sick day law and nine cities in the state have passed legislation requiring employers to give workers paid leave. But New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) continues to oppose the legislation.

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On Thursday night, members of NJWF organized a protest outside a New York City fundraiser for the likely presidential contender’s super PAC, the latest in a series of demonstrations the group has held at Christie fundraisers in cities which already have paid sick leave legislation.

“We need to pass a statewide bill that will cover the 1.2 million workers who regularly have to choose between their livelihood and their heath and the health of their family,” Rob Duffey, the policy and communications director for NJWF, told ThinkProgress.

The NJWF, other activists groups, labor unions and workers were instrumental in securing victories for the legislation in cities across the state — in September alone, four different cities passed paid sick day laws, all without the support of the governor. In total, nine of the state’s cities — including Newark and Jersey City — have already passed and enforce the laws, covering nearly 150,000 workers.

But Christie has said statewide legislation would place an unnecessary burden on businesses and would deter companies from investing in New Jersey.

“Let’s face it, resistance to paid sick days is deeply unpopular,” Duffey said. “Paid sick days are twice as popular as Governor Christie is here in New Jersey. He’s polling in the 40s, it polls at 83 percent. He wishes he had paid sick days’ poll numbers.”

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As Christie continues to put a hold on sick day legislation that the state legislature has advanced, New York City expanded its paid sick day law last year to include hundreds of thousands of additional workers. And President Obama made the issue a national priority earlier this year when he urged state and local governments to act and to give workers across the U.S. up to seven paid sick days a year.

While Christie has resisted legislation on a state level, workers’ advocates have continued their fight locally. Last month, a state court judge dismissed a lawsuit brought by the New Jersey business community arguing that the capital city of Trenton didn’t have the authority to enforce paid sick day legislation without the support of Christie or the state legislature.

And the nine municipalities that have enacted the paid sick leave laws say the legislation is working. Michael Venezia, the mayor of Bloomfield, told the Wall Street Journal that most businesses are willing to go along with the law. And since passing earned sick days in 2013, Jersey City’s employment gains have significantly outpaced the rest of the state.

This isn’t the first time the advocates have pushed pro-worker policies despite opposition from the governor. Christie also opposed a statewide minimum wage increase and vetoed the measure when it reached his desk in 2013. Proponents kept the fight alive and put the issue on the ballot later that year, when voters approved an increase to $8.25 an hour with nearly 61 percent in support.

“Governor Christie has stood in the way of every piece of pro-worker legislation that’s been proposed in New Jersey for the last five years,” Duffey said.

When Democrats and Obama made raising wages a campaign issue in 2014, Christie said he’s “tired of hearing about the minimum wage” — a statement he since said was misunderstood.

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The earned sick leave issue is likely to play a major role in the campaigns of 2016 presidential candidates as worker’s rights issues gain momentum. Recent strikes by fast food workers seeking higher wages, better working conditions and paid leave have helped to launch labor issues into the national spotlight. Cities across the country have responded by raising their minimum wages — all four states that had the issue on the 2014 ballot approved the increase — and passing legislation guaranteeing paid leave. Connecticut adopted the first law in 2011 requiring paid sick leave benefits for some employees and lawmakers in California and voters in Massachusetts passed laws in 2014.

Democrats also reintroduced legislation in the House and Senate earlier this year that would require businesses with 15 or more employees to give their workers the ability to earn seven days of paid sick leave a year.

As Christie left the fundraiser hosted by his Leadership Matters for America PAC last week, NJWF community organizer and Hillside, NJ resident Sherrell Bracewell asked him why he refuses to pass earned sick leave days for New Jersey workers. “Who’s going to pay for it?” Christie responded before walking off.

Bracewell, a 26-year-old single parent who often has to take time off work to care for her child, told ThinkProgress she was not impressed with the governor’s response. “It was kind of an evasive answer,” she said. “He could have come up with something better than that.”