It was in front of Esmeralda’s Restaurant in Bushwick, with the M train rattling along the tracks overhead, that newly instated Mayor Bill de Blasio announced the expansion of the City Council’s paid sick leave bill this January.
“What we are putting forward today will fundamentally improve the lives of hundreds of thousands of working New Yorkers,” de Blasio told the crowd.
Esmeralda’s was a symbolic pick for the new mayor. The no-frills Ecuadorean eatery is a neighborhood favorite, its lime green walls plastered with soccer posters and dining room bustling with patrons at mealtimes and during sports games. Esmeralda’s is smack in the heart of working-class Bushwick and just across from the headquarters of Make the Road NY, a citywide nonprofit supporting immigrant and working class rights. Make the Road has been pushing for paid sick leave legislation for years.
The newly expanded legislation stands to help many of Bushwick’s residents. Yet the neighborhood is also home to more than 500 small businesses that will be covered by the law’s proposed expansion, according to ReferenceUSA, an online business database. These neighborhood cafes and cantinas, bakeries and bookstores, like Esmeralda’s, are in many ways the neighborhood’s foundation.
And while some small local businesses worry that the law, combined with the neighborhood’s soaring rents, might strain their resources, many say it’s right that their workers receive this benefit.
The original legislation, passed after the City Council overrode former Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s veto last June, mandated five paid sick days for businesses of 20 employees or more, a number that would eventually have been reduced to 15 employees or more.
The proposed expansion of the law covers businesses of five employees or more and becomes effective this April. All in all, the de Blasio administration says that the expansion will cover 355,000 New Yorkers, 200,000 of whom do not receive any kind of paid sick leave currently.
“We applaud Mayor Bill de Blasio and Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito for addressing the needs of all workers in New York City,” Carlo Scissura, president of the Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce, said in a statement in January. “We look forward to reviewing the bill and working with Mayor de Blasio and Speaker Mark-Viverito on the easing of other regulations and aggressive fines that have burdened small businesses for years.”
Despite a carefully crafted statement, it’s clear that de Blasio’s announcement ruffled some feathers at the Chamber. Some small business owners in Bushwick candidly voiced concerns that Scissura, for political reasons, could not.
“You’d have to close or fire an employee, or find a smaller shop farther away from this area,” Manuel Almache, who owns a small real estate agency and is president of the Wyckoff Avenue Merchants’ Association, said.
Welinton Perez owns an auto repair shop and hardware store on Irving Avenue. He said he treats his employees with respect, but that the tax burden he already feels puts him in a bind.
“They’re giving us two options,” he said. “Lower the amount of employees and double the work we do. Or else close the business and retire because it ends up being better to be an employee than being a business owner.”
Despite worry among some small business owners, Ruth Milkman, the Academic Director of Labor Studies at CUNY’s Murphy Institute, argued that such apprehension is unwarranted.
“Our research and that of others shows that business is affected minimally by these policies,” she wrote in an email. The Murphy Institute has looked into paid sick leave laws in San Francisco and Connecticut. “One reason is that the very modest costs involved are equal for all businesses, so none are rendered uncompetitive.”
“No worker should be forced to choose between her health, or that of her child, and losing a day’s pay,” she wrote. “The good these laws do far outweighs any impact on business.”
And indeed many small business owners in Bushwick agree with Milkman’s assessment. Esmeralda Valencia, owner of the restaurant where the sick leave expansion was announced, swears by the paid sick leave policy for her five employees. She said it makes for more loyal employees and clientele.
“If the employee is healthy, we provide a healthier service to our community,” Valencia said. “When we provide a quality service, the community realizes that and comes more often.”
But even beyond those advocating for paid sick leave, many local businesses already have their own policies in place.
“If you’re not up to par, you can’t do your job correctly. Stay home. Relax. Tomorrow’s a new day,” Salvatore Pierdipino, owner of Italian bakery Circo’s Pastry Shop, said he tells his six employees when they’re sick. Even with such flexibility, he said his employees never use more than five days a year. “They’re hard workers. They’re not going to want to stay home.”
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