Let sick workers get well, with pay

By , | Published in NYDailyNews.com | October 8, 2010 |

Your second-grader has been up half the night with a hacking cough. Do you call in to say you can’t go to work – and risk losing a whole day’s paycheck? Or do you pack some tissues in his lunch box and hope that he makes it through the school day without getting worse or infecting half the class?

No working parent should face such a choice. But for thousands of New York City’s public school parents, this is a very real dilemma. It doesn’t need to be.

According to one study, more than half of New York City public school working parents don’t have any sick leave pay. And according to the newest numbers from the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics, it’s toughest for the families who need every paycheck: Only 37% of the lowest-income workers in the New York City area can take a single day off and still get paid.

That’s a public health problem for all of us. According to the Washington, D.C.-based group Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, two-thirds of restaurant workers recently reported they have worked while sick.

Thankfully, Councilwoman Gale Brewer has responded to this squeeze on working families with a bill to require paid sick leave, which now has veto-proof support in the City Council. The bill would entitle employees at larger businesses to nine days of paid sick leave – which they would be able to use to take care of themselves or their families. Workers at small businesses, with smaller staffs and lower pay, would get five sick days a year.

Mayor Bloomberg has indicated that he’s against the bill as written – but the Council has enough votes to pass the bill, then override a veto, should it come. And that’s exactly what it should do.

The city’s business community – led by the Partnership for New York City – argues the law will be too costly. Based on a study that included a survey of 700 disproportionately large companies, the partnership estimates the bill would cost around $789 million – and says that most businesses already offer this benefit.

As a result, they say, the law is unwise and necessary.

But the labor bureau reports that only 62% of workers at New York City area businesses with under 100 employees get any sick leave. Compare that to the 87% of workers who get it at firms employing over 500 people.

We also believe the partnership inflates how much the new law would cost. The truth is, the bill has multiple provisions to ease the effects on employers with fewer than 20 employees. And contrary to what the partnership asserts, businesses that already provide enough paid sick leave would not have to make any changes.

Of course, paid sick leave will cost something – the official estimate is that it would cost just 39 cents per worker per hour at area businesses. That will add up to about $332 million a year.

Such an important safety net is worth that small sum.

The facts belie claims that paid sick leave is a job killer. In 2006 San Francisco became the first U.S. city to guarantee workers paid sick days. Back then, the business lobby argued against it – but four years later, no apocalyptic outcomes have materialized and onetime opponents now laud the bill.

In fact, a recent study by the Drum Major Institute shows the employment rate in San Francisco outperforming five neighboring counties. Even the industries where opponents feared the impact would be harshest – retail, hospitality and food services – remained stronger than their nearby counterparts. If paid sick leave were so detrimental to business, that wouldn’t be the case.

Flu season is here, and it will spread quickly without this bill. The Mayor and health commissioner just got their flu shots and are urging other New Yorkers to do the same. If they really wanted to help, they’d back paid sick leave.

Cohen is president of the Center on Policy Initiatives, a San Diego-based think tank. Blumgart is a researcher and writer for the Center’s “Cry Wolf Project.”