En Español Know Your Rights
Source: City Beats
Subject: Workplace Justice
Type: Media Coverage

Paid Sick Time Bill Divides City Businesses

A day before the Speaker of the City Council Christine C. Quinn effectively killed the Paid Sick Time bill, a law that seeks to make paid sick leave available to every private sector employee in New York, a crowd gathered around a decorated food cart, Antojitos Mexicanos La Tia Julia, in Elmhurst, and shouted a slogan, ”Si, se puede!” – “Yes, you can!”

“We urge the Speaker to support the bill. It is the right thing to do,” said Queens community leader and attorney Bryan Pu Folkes at the street demonstration that took place last Wednesday. “People will work, and people will get sick. Sick people should never be forced to work.”

The bill, which was re-introduced in the City Council on March 25 by Council Member Gale Brewer and has been opposed aggressively by a large section of New York’s business community, hit a wall last Thursday when the Speaker announced she would not support the measure, fearing it would “threaten the survival of small-business owners.” Brewer said she would not bring the bill to vote against the Speaker’s position, but would continue to review the matter every two months.

Support for the bill emanated from a seemingly unlikely group – small-business owners from Corona, Jackson Heights and Elmhurst. The bill requires businesses employing less than 20 people to provide five days of paid sick leave to their employees. For large businesses, with 20 people or more, the number of sick leave days under the bill is nine.

Despite the additional expense, owners of small businesses, such as restaurants, delis and stores, support the bill. And so does Make the Road New York, a not-for-profit that has rallied behind this measure for two years.

“Workers who don’t have paid sick leave are forced to choose between their jobs or a day’s paycheck on the one hand, and their health or that of their family’s on the other,” said Andrew Friedman, a representative of Make the Road. “No one should have to make that choice.”

Supporters of the bill have also cited public health concerns. Lois Utley, Chair of the Policy and Legislative Committee of the Public Health Association of NYC, said sick workers endangered not only their own health but also that of their co-workers, customers, and the general public.

Small-business owners at the demonstration said it was not just public interest and health they had in mind. Healthy workers plus healthy customers equal better business.

“Experience tells me that if my workers are healthy, they will be more productive,” said Marco Renoso, owner of a 26-year old Brooklyn deli, Superstar, which employs three part-timers. “Small businesses will have to pay around $330 extra per employee per year. I don’t think that will make them bankrupt.”

Partnership of New York, an organization committed to enhancing business in the city, does not agree. It released a study in September, analyzed by Ernst and Young, that claims overall private payroll costs for the city will increase by 0.30 percent or $789 million per year if the bill is passed. The study also says that small businesses are particularly vulnerable to the cost increases, and will have to cut positions or even go out of business.

Andrew Friedman, of Make the Road, said the Partnership study was flawed on many counts. He highlighted the fact that only 708 businesses were surveyed in a city of hundreds of thousands of businesses, and represented large corporations.

Bolstering the argument, Lenin Juca, owner of Oxium Copy and Print Center in Jackson Heights, drew a distinction between small and large businesses, saying the latter looked at employees as an expense and not an investment.

“Small businesses are like families. There is a bond between employers and workers,” said Juca, “We trust that if we take care of our workers, our workers will take care of the business.”

Council Member Danny Dromm, a strong supporter of the Act, also rubbished the opposition, comparing their arguments to those advanced decades ago when minimum wages legislation was being introduced.

“We now know how important that was,” said Dromm. “The Paid Sick Time Act is especially important for my constituency because we have a lot of immigrant workers who are deprived of paid leave benefits.”

Nestor Cordero is one such example. Having worked as a chef six days a week for 11 years at Porto Bello Pizzeria in Astoria, he still cannot take a sick leave without losing the day’s pay.

“I don’t get paid enough. When I fall sick, I don’t even have enough money to buy medicines,” he said. “I have to go to work because I cannot afford to lose money.”

Many immigrant businesses, however, argue that if workers have a quota of sick leaves, they will take it, whether they are sick or not. Indian Sari Palace, a Jackson Heights shopping landmark for over 25 years employs 10 people, a majority of whom are women. Only employees in managerial positions are entitled to paid sick leave.

“If business was good, we would support this law. We are not opposed to it in principle,” said Manu Khiantani, the manager of the store. “But in this economy, we would rather not have additional expenses.”

Some small immigrant businesses have taken a more employee-centric point of view.

“We were employees once too, so we want to help our employees,” said Clementina Hernandez, who employs eight people in the two food businesses she owns. “The extra cost is insignificant compared to the benefits.”