More than a quarter million New Yorkers got a big boost last week when the City Council voted 45-6 to expand its paid sick days law. In a city where “a lot of people are one paycheck away from disaster,” as Mayor Bill de Blasio put it in an interview with Chris Hayes, the vote constituted an important step to “change the rules and raise the floor.”
The New York win added to the growing momentum of the paid sick days movement across the country. Behind each victory lies an important shift in this country: more workers seeing the possibility of change when they take action together, and more elected officials recognizing they need to be on the side of an economy that works for everyone, not just the wealthy.
The New York legislation will require businesses with five or more employees to provide paid sick time to its employees, as opposed to the current law that applies only to businesses with 15 or more employees. The legislation will now cover manufacturing firms, and extends the statute of limitations for complaints to three years from 270 days. Amendments also strengthen the ability of the enforcement agency to take proactive measures, such as audits and inspections, to ensure compliance with the law. And the expanded bill contains a more appropriate definition of family member, so workers can use a sick day to care for a grandparent, grandchild or siblings, not just a child or partner.
The New York City Earned Sick Time Act was originally adopted in June of 2013. The new legislation was sponsored by Council Member Margaret Chin after being proposed last month by Mayor de Blasio and Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito. It carries out the original demands of the broad coalition that worked for three years to pass the bill and comes on the heels of Mayor de Blasio’s election, in which paid sick days played a pivotal role. Fifty-five percent of those polled (58% of women) – and 58 percent of women voters – said the fact that City Council Speaker Christine Quinn delayed action on paid sick days for three years made them less likely to vote for her. An overwhelming majority (73%, and 78% of women) said they were more likely to vote for a candidate who supports policies like paid sick days.
For most of the 1.2 million New Yorkers who will be covered as of April 1 of this year, the new law is key to keeping them from falling off the financial brink. Rafael Navor, a Brooklyn father of three and member of Make the Road New York, described a time he had the flu for a week and did what public health officials tell us to do – stayed home until his symptoms were gone.
“When I returned to work, my boss ran me off the job,” said Navor, a construction worker. “Unfortunately, this type of retaliation is very common in the construction industry. Paid sick days are a necessity for all workers and not a luxury. For construction workers like myself, who normally work with smaller firms, the new expansion of paid sick days is critical – and I want to thank and congratulate the City Council for today’s vote.”
The law’s new changes will help workers like Navor in smaller businesses who are least likely to have access to paid sick time now. The 2013 Unheard Third survey by the NY Community Service Society found that 64 percent of workers employed by businesses with fewer than 15 workers lack paid sick days compared to 38 percent of those in larger firms. According to Nancy Rankin, CSS Vice President for Policy Research, “the original law would have left out more than a quarter of workers who needed paid sick time.”
Public health professionals were among those speaking out in support of the expanded bill because lack of paid sick days has such an impact on public health. “Germs and viruses cannot discriminate between job sector or the size of the business, only attacking the immune system of workers of a particular industry or after first verifying there are more than 20 employees in the business,” said Dr. Flavio Casoy, Executive Vice President for the Committee of Interns/SEIU Healthcare.
National and local support of paid sick days legislation continues to grow. The hearing comes just a few weeks after the Washington State House passed a statewide paid sick days bill and a month after Newark unanimously passed paid sick days, guaranteeing 38,000 workers will no longer have to choose between their paycheck and their health or the health of their family. In December, Jersey City passed the first earned sick days law in New Jersey. That same month Washington, DC expanded its legislation, specifically to include tipped workers who had been left out when the bill first passed in 2008. These cities join San Francisco Seattle,; and Portland, Oregon in helping boost the economy by making sure workers can hang on to critical income when ill. A number of other cities, including Tacoma, Washington and Eugene, Oregon, have active campaigns and many more are in the works. Several states, including Vermont, Massachusetts and Maryland, are vying to join Connecticut in guaranteeing statewide protection.
Look for the issue of paid time to care to play a role in many local, state and federal elections this November. Voters want to know who’s on their side – and paid sick days is a key indicator.
Ellen Bravo is an activist and author. She serves as executive director of Family Values @ Work, a network of 15 state coalitions working for paid sick days and paid family leave. The former director of 9to5, National Association of Working Women, her most recent book is Taking on the Big Boys, or Why Feminism is Good for Families, Business and the Nation. She is a WMC Progressive Women’s Voices alumna.