Testimony:  The State of Workers’ Rights in New York City

Nancy Rankin

VP for Policy Research and Advocacy
Community Service Society of New York

Before the New York City Department of Consumer Affairs Office of Labor Policy & Standards

July 17, 2018


Thank you for the opportunity to testify today on the importance of outreach and enforcement of labor standards.

My name is Nancy Rankin. I am Vice President for Policy Research and Advocacy for the Community Service Society of New York, a nonprofit organization that works to advance upward mobility for low-income New Yorkers. 

New York, the birthplace of progressive labor standards that paved the way for the New Deal, is now advancing bold policies to address the needs of today’s workers. State actions are raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour and providing one of the strongest paid family leave laws in the nation.

Under Mayor Bill de Blasio’s leadership, New York City has expanded paid sick leave to cover employees in smaller businesses, made the definition of family more inclusive, and allowed the leave to be used to deal with domestic violence. Fair Workweek laws are combatting unpredictable scheduling practices in the fast food and retail sectors and enabling paycheck deductions to support a nonprofit to advocate for the interests of fast food workers. A new law designed to end the perpetuation of the wage gap for women bans employers from asking job applicants for their salary history.  And the funding of Fair Fares will enable the working poor to actually be able to afford to get to work.

Collectively, the promise of these actions is enormous.  But passing laws is just the start. For ordinary workers—especially the most vulnerable low-wage and immigrant workers—to benefit, they, their employers, and the general public must be aware of the laws and how they work.  The standards need to be enforced and become the new norms.

Earlier this year, the Community Service Society released a report, Expanding Workers’ Rights, examining public awareness of some of these new labor standards, and their impact on low-income workers in New York City. The analysis is based on findings from our annual scientific survey, The Unheard Third.

We found that since New York City’s earned sick time law went into effect in 2014, access to paid sick days has climbed dramatically from 47 to 71 percent for low-income workers covered by the law. This substantial progress can be credited to the extensive public outreach and advertising surrounding the launch of paid sick days, as well as strong enforcement by DCA’s Office of Labor Policy & Standards.

Despite these efforts, gaps remain. Nearly half of low-income part-time employees and 44 percent of low-income workers in small businesses with five to 14 employees still lack paid sick time.

Since enforcement is largely complaint-driven, awareness of the law matters. Yet 63 percent of low-income workers who said their employers failed to provide paid sick days had heard little or nothing about their right to paid sick time. And even if they are aware of the law, vulnerable workers, especially immigrants, are likely to be fearful of retaliation, and reluctant to lodge complaints with their employers or a government agency to assert their rights.

Since we released our findings, DCA has launched a new public awareness campaign to educate New Yorkers about their rights under the expanded paid safe and sick leave law that went into effect in May 2018. Ads highlight that the law applies to workers employed part-time and by small firms, and that retaliation is illegal. This is a promising and needed step, but our concern is whether the scale of the campaign will be adequate.  We urge the city to expand these efforts with additional funding for both outreach and proactive investigations of industries where widespread violations are suspected.   

To strengthen awareness, why not require posters about the right to paid sick leave at every pharmacy, clinic and in doctors’ offices? This is a low-cost means of targeting information to people precisely when it has high relevance to them. Moreover, widespread public awareness makes it harder for employers to deny vulnerable workers their rights.

Every flu season provides an opportunity for the Mayor to urge New Yorkers to stay home and keep children home from school if they have flu symptoms – and to remind them that they can do that because in New York City they have a right to paid time off to care for their own illness or a sick family member. We were pleased to see DCA Commissioner Lorelei Salas and Health Commissioner Dr. Mary Bassett doing just that as a press event during last winter’s severe flu epidemic.  Mayor de Blasio should be using his bully pulpit, as well, to reach an even wider audience repeatedly with the same message. 

During July and August, CSS is fielding this year’s survey that will allow us to continue to track both awareness of the right to paid sick time and whether workers actually receive it on the job.

We will also be asking about awareness of the Fair Workweek laws which went into effect November 2017. In contrast to the rollout of paid sick days, these laws have not been widely publicized. In particular, we are asking retail and fast food workers how much, if anything, they have heard about the new provisions to address unpredictable scheduling and we will track whether the prevalence of unpredictable scheduling has declined.  This data can be helpful in targeting future outreach efforts to raise awareness of these important new laws to combat abusive practices.

In addition, for the first time this year’s survey will explore the prevalence of wage theft in the various forms it can take:  not being paid on time, not being paid for all the hours worked, or being paid less than the applicable minimum wage.

Let me now briefly turn to paid family leave which went into effect January 2018.  The Empire State Poll, conducted by the Cornell Survey Research Institute this spring, found that statewide two-thirds (66.7%) of employed New Yorkers in households with incomes below $50,000 had heard little or nothing about New York’s paid family leave program.  While this is a state law, it affects those of us employed in New York City, and there are actions the city can take to raise public awareness using institutions it controls, such as NYC Health + Hospitals.  The city should work together with the state to make sure outreach materials and posters are available at H + H prenatal clinics, and that discharge planners are trained so they can inform family caregivers. Medicaid pays for 59 percent of births in New York City, and well over a third of deliveries covered by Medicaid were to women who were employed during their pregnancies according to a special tabulation by the Bureau of Vital Statistics. Medicaid and other health insurance claims for 6-month prenatal visits should automatically trigger a notice to patients informing them about paid family leave. This simple step would precisely target information to many low-wage workers exactly when it is needed.

New York has been leading the nation in expanding workers’ rights. If we want to ensure that all workers, especially the most vulnerable low-wage and immigrant workers actually benefit from the laws designed to help them, we must follow passage of laws with the persistent monitoring, outreach and enforcement needed to make them truly effective.  Today’s hearing is an important step towards that end and I thank you for the opportunity to testify.

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