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Know Your Rights
Source: USA Today
Subject: Workplace Justice
Type: Media Coverage

Advocates: NYC deal key in paid sick days push

Hundreds of thousands of workers in New York City are poised to get paid sick days in what may prove a pivotal moment in a national debate over whether businesses should be required to provide them.

After reaching a deal that could affect about 1 million workers in settings ranging from restaurants to construction sites, City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, union leaders and business groups lauded it Friday as a plan that met both workers’ needs and employers’ concerns. But Mayor Michael Bloomberg called it bad for business and vowed a veto, which the council is expected to override.

While New York’s measure isn’t the first or farthest-reaching, worker advocates say it could be a turning point because of its sweep and stature.

“It’s a real step forward for our country because of the significance of New York City, the number of workers this supports and the fact that this creates momentum around the country,” said Debra L. Ness, president of the National Partnership for Women & Families, one of the groups pushing the paid sick time cause nationwide.

New York City is more populous than the five other cities and one state that have approved such laws so far, and the sick days campaign here drew in such high-wattage supporters as feminist Gloria Steinem and “Sex and the City” actress Cynthia Nixon. The pact in New York follows council votes just this month to approve paid sick leave laws in Portland, Ore., and Philadelphia, though it’s unclear whether Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter will sign the measure there.

Proponents portray sick time as a matter of both working conditions and public health, and they see the recent developments as a welcome upswing after some setbacks in recent years. Dan Cantor, national executive director of the left-leaning Working Families Party, calls the agreement in New York “a booster shot for the paid sick days movement.”

But critics — including New York’s billionaire businessman-turned-mayor — say government should leave sick time arrangements to workers and bosses. The requirement could hamper small businesses and hinder job growth while unemployment remains high, opponents say.

“The bill is short-sighted economic policy that will take our city in the wrong direction,” Bloomberg said in a statement Friday. (He noted this week that his own company, the financial information giant Bloomberg LP, offers the benefit.)

Businesses with 20 or more employees would have to provide five paid sick days a year beginning in April 2014. Enterprises with 15 or more workers would have to do the same by October 2015. All others would have to provide five unpaid sick days per year, a provision advocates call a significant protection for an estimated 300,000 workers against getting fired for calling in sick.

A vote is expected next month.

Luis Gonzalez [a member of Make the Road New York] can’t count the number of times he’s gone to work with the flu, colds and other ailments during 11 years of working construction jobs around the city.

“I have no choice but to work” because of not having sick days, Gonzalez, 33, said through a Spanish interpreter. He’s originally from Azogues, Ecuador.

But some businesses that don’t offer sick days say they have other ways for employees to stay home when they need to.

The Rockaway Seafood Company’s roughly 20 employees swap shifts if they’re ill — or they did before Superstorm Sandy devastated the still-closed eatery, co-owner Chris Miles said. Shift-switching may be an allowable alternative under the upcoming law.

If not, “if and when we do get back open, here we are going to have to lay out extra money for something that has never really been an issue,” Miles said.

After stalling in the City Council for about three years, Councilwoman Gale Brewer’s proposal was energized this year from an unusually sharp flu season and the race to succeed Bloomberg next year.

Quinn — a leading Democratic candidate often seen as a Bloomberg ally courting business support — had declined to bring the proposal to a vote, saying the idea was worthy but the time wasn’t right economically.

But her Democratic rivals increasingly and publicly hammered her on an issue important to unions and other key Democratic constituencies. Steinem said last month she’d withdraw her support for Quinn, who would be New York’s first female mayor, if there wasn’t a vote on sick leave.

And some council members began planning a virtually unheard-of move to force a vote without Quinn’s OK. Some 13 signed on, nearly twice the number needed, according to a person familiar with the maneuvering, speaking to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity to talk about the private discussions.

Quinn said Friday that she’d changed her mind because of changes to the proposal, such as increasing the threshold from five employees to 15, reducing fines, holding off the implementation dates until next year and 2015, and including a proviso for further delays if the economy significantly worsens.

“It provides a critically important benefit to New Yorkers, and it does that without putting jobs at risk,” she said. “It is simply the right thing to do.”

But one of her rivals for the Democratic mayoral nomination, Public Advocate Bill de Blasio, said the city hadn’t gone far enough or fast enough to set a national example.

The city and state “have been the great progressive beacons in this country, and in this case, we simply weren’t,” he said.

New York’s paid sick leave measure is narrower than those in Seattle, Portland and Philadelphia, which apply to businesses with more than five workers; those in San Francisco and Washington, D.C., apply to businesses of any size. A measure in Connecticut, however, kicks in at 50 workers.

In some other cities, such proposals have failed altogether. Milwaukee voters approved a sick time requirement in 2008, but the state Legislature passed a law blocking it, and Denver voters rejected a paid sick day measure in 2011.

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