For more than 1 million New
York workers, even in this day and age, getting sick is an unaffordable
Not only because most of these workers lack health insurance – a fate shared
with 47 million other people in the country – but because they don’t receive a
single paid sick day where they work.
Take the case of Guillermo Barrero, a 36-year-old Mexican immigrant
and father of two. After working as a cook – listen to this – seven days a week
for seven years at the same Brooklyn coffee shop, he became sick at work on
Sept. 18 and had to be rushed to the hospital by his wife. His boss, "la
señora," as he calls her, became so angry that she summarily fired him.
"You don’t care about your job – if you leave now, don’t come back," Barrero
says the woman told him. Pale, feverish and trembling, Barrero left work and
spent three days in the hospital.
"It is unfair, no one wants to get sick," Barrero said. "This is the 21st
century; people should not be treated like this."
No, they shouldn’t, and if the City Council passes the Paid Sick Days bill
introduced Aug. 20 by Councilwoman Gale Brewer (D-Manhattan), they won’t
The legislation is supported by the Working Families Party and already has 38
sponsors. It needs only 26 votes to pass and 34 to override a mayoral veto,
although Mayor Bloomberg has not yet taken a position on
this issue. Despite its urgency, the chances of it being voted on before the
Nov. 3 election are slim.
The new law would mandate businesses with more than 10 employees to give
workers nine annual paid sick days. Smaller businesses would give their workers
five annual sick days.
"This would probably be the most important city law for immigrant workers and
their families in a long time," said Ana María Archila, of Make the Road New
York, who, along with several workers and small business owners, met on Thursday
with City Council Speaker Christine Quinn.
"She [Quinn] told us that the bill would probably be voted on in October or
November. We would like to see it approved before the end of the year," Archila said.
The consequences of not passing this legislation are potentially devastating.
A great number of these employees work in food service and 39% of them are
public school parents, studies show. With health officials fearing a second
round of the H1N1 epidemic looming, these men and women could need time to stay
at home if they or their children become ill. But without paid sick days that
would mean losing income or, like Barrero, losing their jobs. It is a difficult
decision, especially because the great majority of them are low-wage workers.
The city’s chambers of commerce oppose the legislation, arguing that it would
place too much of a financial burden on small businesses. Yet, many business
owners favor it from both a moral and a business point of view.
"We, as owners, have a moral responsibility to offer decent working
conditions to our employees," said Freddy Castiblanco, the owner of Terraza 7 Train
Café in Elmhurst, Queens, and part of the 600-member New
York Small Business United for Health Care.
"Besides, when you support a worker in need, he or she becomes more committed
and contributes more to the success of the business," he said.
"This law is not a luxury; to protect our livelihoods is not a luxury; to
protect our health is not a luxury," said Adela Valdés, who says she was fired from her job
making lampshades because she got sick at work. "I think it is important not
only for me but for the whole city."