Teachers say they can't care for sick parents or attend school conferences for their children because of an "outdated" law on sick days. (Edwin J. Torres/Governor’s Office)
When Lisa Rizziello’s mother died, Rizziello couldn’t be there because she had to be at work instead.
Rizziello, a teacher for more than 30 years, had nearly 400 sick days accrued, but state law stops her from using them to care for anyone but herself.
“If I had been able to use my sick time, I would have been able to be with my mother and hold her hand for her final hours. The memory of this still makes me cry,” she said in written testimony read by a colleague.
Rizziello couldn’t make it to Thursday’s Assembly Labor Committee hearing in Trenton — she couldn’t take time off from work to be there — to watch the panel vote to advance a bill that would allow teachers to take sick time to care for family members. The panel voted in favor of the measure over the objections of critics who said sick time use should be negotiated between teachers and local school boards.
“These matters should be addressed at a local bargaining table so they can be responsive to local priorities and needs, and not dictated by the law,” said Jonathan Pushman, director of government relations for the New Jersey School Boards Association. “This bill essentially throws that dynamic out the window by legislatively mandating the reasons one can take leave.”
Under the bill, teachers and school employees would be able to use their sick days to:
- Care for a seriously ill member of their immediate family for a reasonable period of time.
- Help a family member being treated for or recovering from a physical or mental illness, injury, or other adverse health conditions.
- Get preventive care for themselves.
- Attend a school-related conference or meeting for a child.
- Care for a child when schools or child care centers are closed.
- Grieve the death of an immediate family member for up to seven days.
The measure would also amend state law so school boards can require a doctor’s note for sick leave only if the time off is for personal injury or illness.
Henry Goodyear, a special education teacher and president of the Hillsborough teachers union, said an update to the law would be a game changer for teachers who are in heartbreaking situations and have just a few personal days to handle them.
Goodyear recalled an employee who wanted to take sick leave to care for a parent in the final stages of a cancer diagnosis. The part-time employee wasn’t eligible for the state’s Family Leave Act and had no personal days left, he said.
“They used bereavement days because while we struggled to figure out what would be the answer that would protect their job and allow them to care for their family member, their parent passed. Instead of caring for a loved one and focusing on their own grief, they were forced to focus on how to navigate a sick leave system that is outdated and fails to recognize the basic humanity of our members,” he said.
Assemblywoman Shavonda Sumter (D-Passaic), whose husband works in a school district, shared her own personal story. His mother died in the fall, and for the first few weeks of school, he was running between work, the facility she stayed in, and the house where they were hosting other family members.
“He couldn’t take off, and he’s an only child. It’s his mom. He had the time, just couldn’t use the time,” Sumter said. “Trying to find that balance in the middle, it’s inhumane.”
While there appeared to be consensus in favor of the bill’s goals, some officials argued that this is not a matter for the Legislature.
Michael Kaebler, with the New Jersey School Boards Association, said he wonders if existing teachers contracts would need to be rewritten if the bill reaches Gov. Phil Murphy’s desk. He suggested lawmakers continue analyzing the unintended consequences of the bill before advancing it.
New Jersey schools are already facing staff shortages, pushing districts to spend more money on substitute teachers and bus drivers, Bushman added. He believes advancing this bill would be “disruptive toward educational continuity” because it would allow teachers to take more time off.
Francine Pfeffer, associate director of government relations for statewide teachers union the New Jersey Education Association and a former high school history teacher and librarian, disputed that, saying teachers who take sick days off would likely feel a great need to do so.
“If you are distracted because you should be somewhere else, you are not giving your students your best. They’re not going to learn the same way as if you could take those two or three days off to take care of your family members and then return to school when you are ready,” she said.
The measure advanced Thursday with Assemblyman Parker Space (R-Sussex) voting no and Assemblyman John Catalano (R-Ocean) abstaining. An identical bill in the Senate, introduced in January, has not had a committee vote yet.
The committee also discussed legislation sponsored by Assemblyman Paul Moriarty (D-Gloucester) that would require New Jersey job postings to include salary information, a bill that would make New Jersey the sixth state to bring pay transparency to job listings.
Business leaders said they take issue with a portion of the bill mandating internal promotions be shared publicly. Both Alexis Bailey of the New Jersey Business and Industry Association and Michael DiLorenzo from law firm Gibbons PC said promotions often happen on an emergent basis or when someone is doing a good job at work, and can’t or shouldn’t be shared with others.
“To say that someone’s getting a promotion in the marketing department, to tell that to the whole company — like someone in finance would’ve never gotten that promotion in the first place,” Bailey said.
Moriarty said he is open to removing the bill’s language that would allow workers to sue employers for violations and instead allow the Department of Labor to handle them. He also said he’d consider updating the bill to apply to employers with 10 or more workers. The measure currently would apply to businesses with five or more employees.
“This is a long, overdue bill,” he said after the hearing. “It was a good discussion, and I have to think about it, but the people who came up made good points.”
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