While working as a building handyman, Guillermo Serna was told to demolish a fourth-floor bathroom and carry the heavy construction debris down the stairs.
Lugging heavy sinks and toilets down the stairs, he developed a hernia. Sernas employer did not provide paid sick leave and he could not afford to take time off to deal with his health problem. His condition grew more serious.
Eventually, Serna was forced to have an operation. Even though his doctor told him to stay home for a month to recuperate, Serna returned to work after 15 days to avoid lost wages and losing his job.
Serna, like hundreds of thousands of workers in New York City, had to choose between his health and his job.
Throughout the city, only 5% of restaurant workers have paid sick days. As a result, they routinely report to work, and handle our food, while sick because they cannot afford to lose pay or even lose their jobs.
Similarly, thousands of parents each week are forced to send their children to school, even when they are sick, and contagious, because the parents do not have even a single day of paid sick leave. The status quo is a public health disaster.
This spring, during the swine flu outbreak, public health officials counseled New Yorkers to stay home from work if they had any symptoms of the H1N1 virus. Unfortunately, hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers simply could not stay home without risking losing their jobs, or taking a tough financial hit.
There is expected to be a resurgence of swine flu in the fall, just as most children return to school. Eventually, the pandemic will pass. But the essential public safety issue remains: People who are sick or hurt, and who cannot afford or are not allowed to take unpaid leave, will continue to go to work sick and hurt. Sick workers are less productive, more likely to have accidents on the job, and spread disease. Injuries and illnesses that could be taken care of early, at a lower medical cost, grow into major health crises.
Last week City Councilwoman Gail Brewer(D-Manhattan) introduced paid sick leave legislation that would address these basic issues of public safety and fairness to working New Yorkers.The bill would guarantee all workers a minimum number of paid sick days to care for themselves or an immediate family member nine days for workers at large and medium businesses and five days for workers at small businesses.
The legislation also makes sense for business. Workers with the security of paid sick leave are happier in their jobs; in turn, this reduces turnover and recruitment and training costs.
San Francisco and Washington have successfully implemented paid sick leave laws. According to a 2009 study by the Urban Institute, many employers in San Francisco reported minimal business impacts of the paid sick leave law. Several small business owners here in New York City, such as Freddy Castiblanco of Terrazza Café in Jackson Heights, Queens, are leading the charge for an earned paid sick leave law in New York City.
The time has come for the city to pass an earned paid sick leave law. Workers and children should stay home when they are sick. Public policy should help them do so and protect the public health and well-being.
Andrew Friedman is a lawyer and the founding co-director of Make the Road by Walking, a nonprofit immigrant rights advocacy group.