Something to celebrate for workers for a change: paid sick leave in New York City

This is a real cause for celebration: yesterday, a compromise was reached that at long last will bring paid sick leave to New York City. As always, the devil is in the details, and the bill is far from perfect.

As In These Times’ Sarah Jaffe explains, the bill, which will provide up to five paid sick days per year per employee, will not go into effect until next year and will initially only cover businesses with 20 or more employees (six months after that, it will cover businesses with at least 15 employees). Implementation could even be scrapped altogether should indicators next year show the city’s economy tanking, and some industries, like manufacturing, are exempt. Another possible wrinkle is the financing mechanism (I looked but couldn’t find any details). It would make sense for it to be funded by a small payroll tax paid into a citywide pool, which among other things helps socialize the risk across employers. (This is how states with paid family leave laws finance those benefits).

That said, the law is better than I’d hoped. Advocates say that up to a million workers who previously lacked paid sick days will be covered. I was worried that part-time workers might be exempt and that business owners would be able to weasel out of requirements by reducing employee hours, but part-time workers are also included. I also feared that the law would have job tenure requirements, which is one of the problems with the federal Family and Medical Leave Act, but it essentially doesn’t. (Employees accrue one hour of paid sick time for every 30 hours worked, starting from their first hour of work).

This is a major achievement, and the progressive groups who fought so hard to push this through deserve our effusive thanks — particularly the unions, without whom, as always, nothing decent for working people ever happens in this country. Perhaps, as Salon notes, paid sick leave will become “the next liberal litmus test.” Well, I jolly well hope so! The Salon article reports that similar paid leave laws have been passed in other cities and in Connecticut, and campaigns are afoot across the nation. Our friends at ALEC are busier than elves in Santa’s workshop attempting to block such laws, but many of them are passing anyway. There’s a reason for that: paid sick leave laws are wildly popular. According to the National Opinion Research Center, about 75% of adults favor paid sick days, and the Salon article notes that 80% of New Yorkers support New York City’s paid sick leave law.

What we really need, but which will of course be much harder to achieve, is a national law covering all workers. We are one of the richest countries in the history of the world, yet we really are a pariah nation when it comes to providing such basic benefits. Al least 145 countries provide paid sick leave days for short- or long-term illnesses; the United States is not one of them. An astonishing 60% of all American workers and 80% of our lowest-paid workers lack these basic benefits.

Labor and working family advocates have a solution: a proposed federal law called the the Healthy Families Act. Like many other pieces of progressive legislation (see: climate change, labor law reform, etc.), the Act, which was first proposed in 2004, and which the Obama Administration supports (Michelle Obama has often spoken in its favor), is currently languishing in congressional committee. The bill would enable workers in businesses with 15 or more employees to earn up to seven paid leave days per year to care for their own illness or the illness of a family member. It will also provide paid “safe days” to assist the recovery of victims of domestic violence and sexual assault.

Passage of this law is urgent, and not only because it is the humane and decent thing to do. There are good arguments that the costs of such a law would be more than made up for by the benefits. The reduced turnover costs and increased productivity that could result from such a law might end up saving businesses money in the long-run. Health care costs would be reduced if you have a day off to go to the doctor — and if you’re not at work spreading infectious diseases to your co-workers. Think of it this way: according to a recent report, 90 percent of restaurant workers lack paid sick days. Do you want sick people preparing and serving your food? No, I didn’t think so.

Of course, as long as the House is in Republican hands, paid sick leave is probably dead in the water on the national level. But it surely deserves a place near the top of the progressive agenda, and should be implemented at the local and state levels wherever possible

Kathleen Geier

Kathleen Geier is a writer and public policy researcher who lives in Chicago. She blogs at Inequality Matters. Find her on Twitter: @Kathy_Gee