Photo by: MK2010

Mayor Bloomberg has some telling advice for the more than one million New Yorkers without paid sick days: look for a job with better benefits.

If it were only that easy, Mr. Mayor. For most low-income New Yorkers, choosing one’s employer based on the benefits package is simply not an option. Indeed, in the current economic climate folks feel lucky to have any job at all. According to the Community Service Society’s “Still Sick in the City” report, more than one million working New Yorkers do not have paid sick days, including 64 percent of low-income workers. If they are sick, they face a choice: Go to work sick, quite possibly contagious, and risk passing on their illness to co-workers and customers. Or don’t go to work and see their paychecks reduced, and in some cases their jobs threatened, because of it.

The Paid Sick Time Act was first introduced in the New York City Council in August 2009. The measure had widespread support from both City Council members and the population at large, and many in the business community. But business lobbyists provided a loud and influential voice of dissent. Ultimately, Council Speaker Christine Quinn decided not to support the bill and it was not brought to the floor for a vote. One year later, the situation replayed itself, with Quinn once again deciding to table the bill.

Fast forward to 2012 and the battle for paid sick days is heating up again. In January, workers, labor leaders, small business owners, doctors, activists and City Council members rallied on the steps of City Hall and announced an amended version of the bill. The new bill exempts businesses with fewer than five employees – 62 percent of all business establishments in the city – from having to provide paid sick leave, while still providing job protection for employees of those small businesses who need to take a day off for illness. New small businesses will be given a one-year grace period before needing to comply with the bill’s requirements. The changes have convinced even more Council members to sign on to the bill, which is now supported by 37 of 51 members—a veto-proof majority.

Opponents of the bill like to raise fears that its requirements will hurt small businesses. We need to make New York City more inviting to do business, not less, goes the argument. The same “bad for business” argument has been rolled out time and time again to protest everything from child labor laws to the minimum wage. Studies out of San Francisco, where paid sick days have been law since 2007, show that the requirement has not been detrimental to businesses there. The reality is that the very small cost of paid sick days will not cost jobs or cause them to flee the city.

The “bad for business” excuse is a convenient one because it can be used for nearly every issue (just ask anyone who has advocated for health care reform, financial services regulation, climate change legislation, higher taxes on the wealthy… the list goes on and on). It carries extra weight now given the economic climate, but does anyone really believe that those who have come out against paid sick days will drop their opposition once a rosier economic picture appears? At that point in time, the same voices will insist that new regulations will put us back in the hole we just dug ourselves out of. In reality, tough economic times are exactly when low-income workers need the kind of job protection that paid sick days legislation will offer.

The argument that a law requiring paid sick days will be bad for business also ignores some basic realities. One is that keeping a sick employee away from work is actually good for business. Many of those without paid sick leave work in the service sector, handling food and dealing with customers. It is hard to imagine that a patron catching an illness from a sick employee would be good for business. Sick employees can also be a drain on productivity, particularly if they are passing their illness on to co-workers and causing them to miss work. A study by the Institute of Women’s Policy Research claims that the city will save nearly $40 million dollars per year in emergency room visits that would be prevented with paid sick leave legislation in place. These costs must also be considered when assessing the value of offering paid sick days.

Secondly, the issue of paid sick days is not meant to be seen through only an economic lens, but a moral and a public health one. The protection of certain rights is worth the cost, if not for a particular business, than for a community at large. What does it say about our city that workers must choose between their health and their wages, that a mother has to choose between sending a sick child to school and getting docked a day’s pay? These are choices that many of us don’t have to make and there is no reason anybody should have to. Across the country, a number of cities as well as the state of Connecticut have come to just this conclusion and passed legislation mandating paid sick days. It is time for New York City to follow suit.

An overwhelming majority of New Yorkers support paid sick time benefits, across income levels, race, and political affiliation. According to the Community Service Society’s Unheard Third survey, 74 percent of New Yorkers support the measure now before the City Council. A majority say they would be less likely to vote for a City Council candidate who opposed a paid sick days requirement. And, perhaps most importantly to Quinn, 62 percent of Democrats say they would be less likely to vote for a mayoral candidate who opposed a paid sick days requirement.

The bill the City Council is considering is a modest one: at least 5 days per year – 9 days for larger businesses – when a person can call out sick to take care of themselves or a close family member and not see it reflected in their paycheck. The relatively tiny costs will not put businesses in the red. It will not make New York City a less attractive place to do business.

What it will do is provide a very basic right for those who have gone far too long without it. The ability to maintain one’s health is not a privilege to be enjoyed by the wealthy or those who work in white-collar jobs or in large firms. It is a protection that all workers deserve, and it is incumbent on the New York City Council to pass the Paid Sick Time Act as soon as possible.