By Francine Pfeffer and Patrick Rumaker
Lisa Rizziello’s mother was in hospice, and Rizziello wanted to be with her in her final days, but she had already used her three contractually negotiated family illness days. Rizziello had 376 accumulated sick days, but, as with all school employees, she could use them only for herself as outlined in state law at the time. On the day her mother died, Rizziello could not be with her to hold her hand. She had to be at work.
This is the story the Assembly Labor Committee heard at the end of March as it considered A-5060, which ultimately expanded allowable uses of sick leave so that school employees can use sick time when their family members are ill.
The law governing school district employees had read, “Sick leave is hereby defined to mean the absence from his or her post of duty, of any person because of personal disability due to illness or injury.” Put simply, a school employee could take a sick day for their own illness, but not for the illness or injury of anyone in their care. School employees who took a sick day because they simply needed to take their child to the doctor were risking discipline, loss of salary or dismissal.
A-5060, or the “expanded use of sick leave bill,” was proposed to fix that. The bill was initially introduced by Senate Education Committee Chair Vin Gopal, who heard from a constituent about this limitation on sick days.
At the same time, Rizziello, a teacher in the West Windsor-Plainsboro Regional School District and a Mercer County representative on the NJEA Government Relations Committee, had been talking to Assemblywoman Verlina Reynolds-Jackson. The Assemblywoman, a public employee herself, couldn’t believe that school employees didn’t have the same right she did: the use of sick days to take care of family members who are ill.
Upon hearing Rizziello’s story, Reynolds-Jackson wanted to help fix the problem. When Sen. Gopal’s bill was introduced, she immediately sponsored it in the Assembly and asked to have it posted for a committee hearing.
Bill faces opposition, ultimately passes by large margins
While this legislation may seem like a “no-brainer,” it faced opposition. Opponents contended that sick days beyond those required by law for the illness of the employee should be the subject of negotiations at the local level. They also cited concerns about the cost of paying a substitute and worried that staff might take sick days for frivolous reasons.
These arguments were overridden by the fact that Rizziello’s district had already negotiated three family sick days. Rizziello had already used those days to be with her mother and needed to access her own accumulated sick days. Under the law at that time, she was unable to do so.
Although Rizziello herself could not come to the hearing—she was busy teaching—Hillsborough Education Association President Henry Goodhue and Burlington County Education Association President Anthony Rizzo testified at the Assembly Labor Committee hearing alongside NJEA staff, who presented Rizziello’s story and provided additional testimony.
The bill received bipartisan support in the committee room, with all Democrats voting for the bill and Republican Assemblywoman Claire Swift (R-Atlantic) also voting yes. The bill passed with broad bipartisan support in the Assembly in May and in the Senate at the end of June. Gov. Phil Murphy quickly signed it into law.
Strong relationships with legislators vital
This was not Rizziello’s first time asking her legislators to take action on an important issue. Having worked with many student teachers, she knew the harmful impact of edTPA on preservice educators. She asked her legislators to come hear the stories of this test, and they introduced a bill that ultimately removed the requirement to endure edTPA as a step toward certification.
Strong relationships were key to the success of these bills. As the chair of the Mercer County Legislative Action Team, Rizziello knew Assemblywoman Reynolds-Jackson well. The Mercer County Education Association (MCEA) had developed strong relationships with Reynolds-Jackson and Assemblyman Anthony Verrelli, who also represents Legislative District 15. MCEA was a visible presence in their election activities and continually reached out to the legislators to come to their functions.
Your voice matters. When you talk with a policymaker about an issue that matters, your advocacy—as Rizziello’s story demonstrates—has an impact. As an educator, you know the issues affecting you and your students firsthand, and legislators and policymakers view you as an expert.
Elections and endorsements matter
All the education expertise in the world and the compelling arguments you may bring to legislators are less likely to make an impact if you cannot get in the door to make them. This is especially true if your elected leaders’ interests are opposed to yours.
It is vital to elect lawmakers whose interests and concerns align with your interests and concerns. The NJEA Political Action Operating Committee (NJEA PAC) prides itself on having a sound, fair, and democratic process leading up to the endorsement of a candidate. The purpose of the process is to identify the candidate most supportive of NJEA’s legislative program. Endorsing and electing candidates who support NJEA’s goals significantly increases the association’s ability to pass favorable legislation and stop negative legislation.
PAC screening committees at the county and legislative levels consider the voting records of incumbents and the answers of all candidates around questions concerning pensions, health benefits, school funding, vouchers, collective bargaining, standardized testing, health and safety, higher education, staff shortages and other issues that matter to public school employees and their students.
NJEA’s long-standing participation in the political process has been a key factor in keeping our public schools first in the nation. It’s why the state has finally returned to making its full annual contributions to our pension funds. It’s why our educational support professionals (ESPs)—custodians, bus drivers, secretaries, paraprofessionals, food service staff and all ESPs have just-cause job protections and strong limitations against privatization. It’s why New Jersey’s educators have among the highest average salaries and hourly wages in the nation.
And it’s why you don’t have to make a choice between taking care of a sick loved one or losing a day’s pay.
Your vote is your voice. Your voice is stronger when you join with your fellow NJEA members and vote to make sure that those candidates who value public education become the elected leaders who hold office to keep it strong.
Francine Pfeffer is an associate director in the NJEA Government Relations Division. Patrick Rumaker is the editor of the NJEA Review.