N.J. becomes the latest state to consider ‘fair work week’ legislation

Jan 31, 2020

Democratic lawmakers in New Jersey are proposing a law to make work schedules more predictable for low-wage employees and give them a guaranteed 12-hour break between shifts.

It comes as cities and states across the country consider similar “fair work week” legislation to help workers in the retail and hospitality industries better plan their work schedules while leaving enough time in the day for their personal lives.

State Sen. Nia Gill, D-Essex, and advocates announce the introduction of "fair work week" legislation. (Joe Hernandez)

State Sen. Nia Gill, D-Essex, one of the bill’s sponsors, said the move was necessary “so women and men in service have predictable work hours, opportunity advantages, job security, and [are] able to participate in the scheduling of their work hours without the fear of retaliation.”

The legislation’s introduction coincided with the release of a new Rutgers University report that found that women who work jobs with unpredictable schedules struggle to find child care, make it to doctor’s appointments and complete their education.

Elaine Zundl, research director at the Center for Women & Work at Rutgers, said unstable work schedules can make workers — especially women — more vulnerable.

“When you’re not guaranteed a fair work week or consistent schedules or consistent hours, that’s something that the employer can hold over you,” she said. “It makes you more susceptible to bullying and harassment. You’re not going to speak up if the employer is going to retaliate against you.”

Yet at least one New Jersey industry group has come out against the proposal, claiming it could hurt small businesses and restrict the flexibility of workers.

“Today’s proposal is yet another strike against small business owners who already have to contend with an increasing minimum wage, enhanced paid sick and family leave laws, and added energy and regulatory costs,” said Michele Siekerka, president and CEO of the New Jersey Business & Industry Association.

“Further, this bill could eventually harm employees who actually seek more flexible hours in the food service, hospitality and retail industries,” she added.

The proposal would force businesses to post work schedules 14 days in advance and give employees a 12-hour rest between shifts. If employees chose to work within 12 hours of a previous shift, they would earn one-and-a-half times their normal rate.

If an employer cancels a scheduled shift, it would have to pay the employee half the wages they would have earned, according to the legislation.

The bill applies to companies with more than 250 employees in total, so large employers like Amazon and fast food chains such as McDonalds and Dunkin’ Donuts would be included.

If the proposal becomes law, New Jersey would join Oregon and several major U.S. cities, including Philadelphia and New York City, that have approved similar measures.

Nelliser Etienne, of East Orange, hopes it does.

Etienne prepares food for United Airlines flights taking off from Newark Liberty International Airport, and said she and her fellow employees work unpredictable hours that affect their personal lives — but have little say in setting their schedules.

“We sacrifice more than they sacrifice for us,” she said. “But we have to do what we have to do regardless.”