My parents couldn’t earn sick days. Now I’m making sure everyone in New Jersey can.

Today, NJ Working Families director Analilia Mejia is being honored by President Obama for her leadership in advancing earned sick days laws in nine municipalities across New Jersey. You can watch the live stream of the ceremony here. Below are her thoughts on what this recognition means and the urgent need to ensure everyone in New Jersey has access to paid sick days: 

In New Jersey, 1.2 million workers are unable to care for themselves or their family when illness strikes. This creates an impossible situation for the parent who faces a shortened paycheck and a sick child who should be cared for at home. It also hurts local economies, because every shortened paycheck means groceries left unpurchased. And it threatens our public health when a sick worker feels forced to come into work.

As a child, I often watched my parents make that impossible calculus: care for my sister and myself or make the mortgage payment that month. Take my grandfather to the doctor, and risk a smaller paycheck, or push an appointment back. This issue hits home for far too many in my home state of New Jersey. Medical care goes unsought and illness is spread unnecessarily.

All of this can be prevented with a simple policy that allows all workers to earn time they can take when the inevitable happens.

Two years ago, advocates across New Jersey decided it was time to tackle a problem that plagues far too many workers, particularly those who are most vulnerable due to low wage work, or at the forefront of public health in the service sector industries.

Our strategy is simple: bring the fight to local voters, and show state legislators that the policy works and the voters stand behind it. In September 2013, Jersey City became the first city to pass an earned sick time law. The bill included a call for a study, which researchers released last week. It proves that productivity actually increases for employers as a result of mandated compensated earned sick day policies. In 2014, five New Jersey municipal councils passed identical earned sick time laws. Each of these victories helped build momentum towards a statewide bill, and in fact led to New Jersey Assembly and Senate leadership announcing their renewed support for the legislation and advancing the state bill through the legislative process.

Next, we set out to prove that local voters had a strong appetite for the proposal. In November of 2014, we placed the question on the ballot in two municipalities, where it garnered 75% and 86% of voter support. Because of our strategy, more New Jerseyans are better informed on the policy, elected officials now view it as a critical issue for their constituents, and advocates have local data to show that we all do better when workers have the ability to care for themselves and their families and still make ends meet. These victories have also made a meaningful difference in the lives of over 150,000 workers across our great state who can now breathe a little easier when illness strikes.

With President Obama’s leadership, we hope to make earned sick days a reality for all Americans.

I feel honored every day to lead New Jersey Working Families, and continue to fight to bring equity and fairness for all working families across this state. We fight for a New Jersey in which democracy matters more than corporate money, in which workers make a family sustaining wage and in which the decisions of public officials reflect the values and priorities of the voters who elected them. I do this work not only for the millions who make this state great, but also for the child I used to be. I wasn’t able to help my parents grapple with the struggles that low wage work and poverty created for them, but I sure can help ease those struggles for others today.

Analilia Mejia is the Executive Director of the New Jersey Working Families Alliance, a statewide nonpartisan organization that seeks to promote and defend the interest of New Jersey’s working families.

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