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Know Your Rights
Source: The New York Times
Subject: Workplace Justice
Type: Media Coverage

Health Care? Not if You Can’t Leave Work to Get It

Adela Valdez made lamps in a factory at the back of a lighting store on Canal
Street in Manhattan. The job paid minimum wage and no benefits. Last month, she
got sick but went to work. On her third day of coughing and feeling generally
crummy, she was feverish.

Jim Dwyer/The New York Times

Adela Valdez

Jim Dwyer/The New York Times

Guillermo Barrera

“I asked the boss for permission to go to the hospital,” said Ms. Valdez, 39,
a mother of four. “She said, ‘It’s fine, go — but you don’t have a job
anymore.’ ”

Now Ms. Valdez works three days a week taking care of an elderly woman.

To questions of cost and coverage, add one more detail to the national debate
about health care: time. In New York, time may be more important than cost. The
city’s empire of public hospitals finds ways to serve hundreds of thousands of
people who don’t have enough money or lack private insurance. But people who
have no health insurance through their jobs are not likely to have paid sick
days, either. By some estimates, 765,000 workers in the city do not get paid
when they stay home sick.

That would change under a bill before the City
Council, known as Intro 1059, which is backed by unions and some health organizations**. It would require
all businesses in the city to provide paid sick time. Companies with fewer than
10 employees would have to give five days a year; larger businesses would be
required to provide nine. Fines for not complying would be as much as $1,000.
Business groups like the Chambers
of Commerce in the five boroughs oppose the bill, arguing that the added
costs might force some businesses to cut back on hiring.

Whatever its economic and social merits, the bill, if it becomes law, would
bring the city into the workplace equivalent of the domestic dispute: intimate,
furious, with the truth tied up in tangles.

For nearly seven years, Guillermo Barrera said, he arrived daily at 3:30 a.m.
to work at the grill of a little diner in Bushwick. He peeled the potatoes and
chopped the onions for the home fries. He mixed batter for the pancakes, loaded
the coffee maker, brought in the bread, sliced tomatoes and diced lettuce. He
worked 11 hours a day, seven days a week, and never took a vacation.

A few months ago, Mr. Barrera began to lose weight from a frame that was
already slim, dropping 14 pounds. One Friday in September, sick as a dog, he had
to leave the diner. He called his wife at 7 a.m. to pick him up. He ended up at
Woodhull hospital for three days with a thyroid problem.

“The boss yelled,” Mr. Barrera recalled. “She said, ‘Don’t come back. You’re
fired. You don’t take this job seriously.’ ”

In an interview, the owner of the diner, Athena Skermo, said Mr. Barrera’s
account was a “total lie.” She said she paid her employees when they got sick.

“He left me flat,” she said. “He was gone three days; I never heard from him.
Someone told me he said, ‘I’m not going to work as a grill man anymore,’ because
the doctor told him he got sick from the grill. I had to take someone else.”

THERE are plenty of employers who do give their employees time off when they
are sick, because it’s good for business. “You get more committed people if you
stick with them when they have their crisis,” said Freddy Castiblanco, owner of
the Terraza 7 Train Cafe in Elmhurst,
Queens, just down the block from the 82nd Street stop of the No. 7 train.

Mr. Castiblanco, who has five full-time employees, said that he had given his
people time off when they were sick and that he supported the legislation to
make it mandatory.

“I’m at a disadvantage with other small-business owners who are not
responsible,” Mr. Castiblanco said. “If we had a law, it would be equal.”

There are other reasons, he said, for such a law: the costs that society has
to take on when sick people go to work. Mr. Castiblanco, who was a doctor in
Colombia before moving to the United States and hopes to pass qualifying tests
this year to return to practicing medicine, said sick people should not be in a
workplace where others might catch their ailments. “It’s a matter of public
health that you don’t have contagious people in the workplace,” he said.

And does he provide insurance to his employees?

“I tried,” he said. “It was $700 a month for each one. That would be more
than my rent.”

Does he have insurance for himself and his family?

“I can’t afford it now,” he said.

**Including Make the Road New York