Finally, Paid Sick Leave for New York’s Workers

David R. Jones, The Urban Agenda

For the last three years, we heard opponents of paid sick days legislation argue that such a law would harm businesses and drive away employers.  Those dubious claims were finally defeated earlier this month with City Council passage of The Earned Sick Time Act.

When the measure goes into effect next April, nearly a million more workers in New York City will no longer have to choose between their health or taking care of a sick child at home and losing a paycheck. And no worker will have to fear losing their job because they missed a few days’ work because of illness.

While the law is a huge victory, it is not all that advocates wanted. Workers in manufacturing and for small employers with fewer than 15 employees will not yet be required to provide paid leave, just five days of unpaid leave. We will continue to push for expansion of the law because all workers need and deserve this fundamental protection and all employers deserve a level playing field.

The Council’s action – the bill passed by an overwhelming margin of 45 to 3 – means that the city will join San Francisco, Washington, D.C., Seattle, Portland, Oregon, and the state of Connecticut, all of which have adopted paid sick leave legislation. 

Nearly two thirds of low-income black and Latino workers in the city don’t have paid sick leave.  These are workers who can least afford to lose their pay when illness strikes.  Half of low-income respondents in a Community Service Society (CSS) survey said they have less than $500 to fall back on in case of an emergency.  For these workers, losing even a day’s pay hurts.

So what was the reaction of Mayor Bloomberg?  He grumbled that “It will hurt small businesses and stifle job creation.”  Based on what?  San Francisco, which was the first municipality to mandate paid sick leave for all workers, has determined that it has had no adverse effects on jobs.

We know from speaking with small businesses and economists alike that providing paid sick leave to workers generates cost savings including greater employee morale, decreased turnover and reducing workplace contagion and accidents.

Yet, it seems the opponents of this measure -- who presumably receive paid time off to care for themselves or a family member – believe that those who cook and serve food in restaurants, care for the elderly and young children, and clean offices are somehow not entitled to the same benefit. All we seem to hear from them are the same tired pronouncements of `doom and gloom’ that have accompanied every step forward for working people in this country for over a century. 

Continual Opposition

When the eight hour day was instituted, when child labor was outlawed, when the minimum wage was established, when Social Security was adopted, when Medicare was approved, the voice of the business community was always heard predicting disaster.

When Social Security was adopted in 1935, businessmen and their conservative representatives predictably predicted doom. 

"The lash of the dictator will be felt and 25 million free Americans will for the first time submit themselves to a finger print test."  So said Representative Daniel Reed (R-NY).  "So-called social security [will] mean industrial in-security."  This from the National Association of Manufacturers.

In 1964, when Congress was debating Medicare, Ronald Reagan was touring the country warning that Medicare would be the end of democracy in America. 

Fulminating against “socialized medicine,” Reagan said that if Medicare was adopted, “one of these days we are going to spend our sunset years telling our children and our children’s children, what it once was like in America when men were free.”  He really said this.  Honest.  About Medicare.

The American Medical Association launched an extensive and well financed campaign against the enactment of Medicare.  Unlike Reagan, the AMA would admit its error decades later.

By the way, does any of this sound familiar when you hear the remarks of opponents of President Obama’s Affordable Care Act?
Every time the minimum wage is increased, business warns that it will be disaster for low-wage workers.  As if they actually cared about low-wage workers. 

The bill that passed the Council applies only to businesses with 20 or more employees.  They will be required to provide five paid sick days a year.  Both “mom and pop” establishments and manufacturing businesses will be exempt.  And the law will go into effect only if the city’s economy can handle its effects as measured by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.

Public Support

CSS surveys have shown that an overwhelming majority of New Yorkers in all income groups support a law requiring employers to provide paid sick leave.  The laws in other places have been found to be an equalizer for firms that already provided paid leave and those that now must do so.

Moreover, this is a public health concern.  The public bears the costs when germs are transmitted to customers in restaurants or supermarkets, parents send sick children to school because they cannot afford to take the day off, and workers end up in emergency rooms because they cannot get treated during work hours.

So let’s celebrate the adoption of a common sense law that will make the city a better and healthier place not only for low-income workers, but for all New Yorkers.

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