Cynicism about government is rampant in America based on the simple belief that government has been hijacked by special interests. As the political agitators ride high with overflowing coffers, their ability to bully and control legislators increases. Rules get changed, laws get passed, and the ordinary folk are pretty much left in the dark. Except that ordinary folks suffer the dismal consequences of a government bought and sold by the special interests.
So, I took particular notice when I heard that a group called, “Working Families’ Alliance,” had descended on Princeton (ever notice how every special interest group has a puppy-friendly name?) This group — headquartered in Brooklyn — has decided that they know best how we should govern our unique town, a relative oasis of prosperity in the bleak landscape of New Jersey’s limp economy. So, according to press reports, they have delivered a piece of legislation to Princeton’s Mayor and Council and are now agitating for quick approval.
The ordinance in question mandates that all private sector employers provide paid sick leave to both full and part-time employees in order to… “reduce the spread of communicable disease and contagion.” It seems strange that a law focused on public health would specifically exclude workers employed in government or in the school district. Do we not believe that all workers in our schools or government buildings should be similarly protected against contagion? The inescapable conclusion is that this new ordinance is not really about public health at all, but rather an attempt to exact another tax on private employers.
Most reasonable people would agree that it would be great if all employers, including municipal government, were able to offer paid time off to all employees. But it is a different question to ponder whether it is reasonable or fair or even good policy for government to demand that employers offer this benefit. My informal survey of the larger employers in town suggests that the most successful and established businesses already give full-time workers paid time off. Many of them even proudly explain the policy in their storefront, “Help Wanted,” signs. It is simply good business for them to retain their best workers.
But is it fair for government to coerce a small, “mom-and-pop” shop that is struggling to afford Princeton’s sky-high taxes and rents to pay a wage that it cannot support? Do we want to destroy the cultural diversity and special character of our town by driving out all the small businesses in favor of a Disneyesque streetscape where only Starbucks and J. Crew can afford to pay? Have you noticed the increased number of retail vacancies that are already popping up around town? Is it too much to ask of our local officials to find out how many local small businesses are close to their tipping point before adding another burden on them? How about looking out for the little guy?
Another insidious element of the proposed ordinance is that it discriminates against the unskilled workers who typically enter the workforce through part-time work. Think of the worker with limited educational achievement who proves his worth and value to an employer by starting in a part-time role before earning his or her full-time position. Or think of your children who gladly accept inferior benefits in order to land that coveted part-time summer work. Why would an employer take a risk on new or untested or seasonal part-time workers if the law dictates a cost that exceeds the value of their input? What will you tell your kids when they cannot find any summer jobs available in Princeton?
But this proposed law isn’t done yet. It also demands that businesses located outside Princeton who do business in the town would also need to comply with the ordinance. Perhaps your plumber or landscaper will simply add a “Princeton surcharge” to reflect the added cost of doing business in our community. And then consider the employer who has staff in both Princeton and in other communities. In which office do you think that employer is likely to add staff or increase operations? Some businesses might simply leave Princeton to avoid the added administrative complexity of maintaining separate HR ledgers for the Princeton employees. Because an employer’s failure to maintain adequate records creates “…a presumption that the Employer has violated the Ordinance…” as the law is currently drafted. In other words, get a lawyer.
When our elected officials speak, they usually talk about the need to protect affordability and the character and diversity of the town while keeping taxes low and the economy strong. These are goals on which we all agree. But actions speak louder than words.
Scott Sipprelle is a private investor and former Republican congressional candidate.