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Paid sick days are a human right

1199Seiu | , George Gresham President | 3/16/2012, 1:05 p.m.
George Gresham, President 1199SEIU United Healthcare Workers East

Late last year, our billionaire mayor, Michael Bloomberg, summoned the press to City Hall to announce that life expectancy in New York is now more than two years above the national average.

Our city's health care system is among the major contributing factors to the increase. And I credit the mayor for making public health a priority. He has taken important measures to reduce air pollution, smoking and obesity and to improve nutrition.

Yet, I wonder what the mayor and other business and political chieftains are thinking when they oppose a key measure to improve public health: the right of working people to paid sick days.

Almost half (48 percent) of working New Yorkers have no paid sick leave. Even worse, the figure for workers in the bottom quarter of earnings is 63 percent, almost two out of three. Conversely, among those in the top quarter, only 16 percent lack paid sick leave.

Those who oppose paid sick days are far out of step with the public. Even back in 2007, a Community Service Society poll found that 75 percent of New Yorkers believed that paid sick days should be granted to all workers. And in 2009 and 2010, City Council Member Gail Brewer, with the support of 35 of 51 council members, introduced a paid sick time act. The bill, of course, did not affect existing collective bargaining agreements.

Unfortunately, City Council Speaker Christine Quinn failed to bring the bill to the floor for a vote. Although Brewer and the Council have made business-friendly amendments to the bill, Quinn and the mayor continue to cite the concerns of the business community as the basis for their opposition.

Those in the business community and their conservative servants tout their staunch belief in family values. However, those values seem to get lost somewhere in the bottom line. If the New York State Business Council, the city's chambers of commerce and billionaires such as the mayor, oilman David Koch and hedge fund guru John Paulson truly cared about families, they would support the right of every parent to care for a sick child or to take time off themselves to recover from illness.

"As a single mother and only provider for my two beautiful daughters, it has been very difficult for me to stay home with them when they have felt ill in the past because I could not afford to lose my job," said Iraina Sanchez, a Brooklyn store worker and member of the immigrants rights organization Make the Road New York, one of 1199SEIU's partners in the paid leave campaign.

Paid sick time is more than an individual human right. It is also an important public health issue. Ironically, one of the jobs least likely to offer paid sick days, restaurant work, is one of those most likely to require frequent contact with the public. Last August, some 2,000 Olive Garden patrons in Fayetteville, N.C., received hepatitis A vaccines after a restaurant server tested positive for the virus.

Paid sick leave is not a radical notion. Connecticut passed legislation last year, as did Seattle. San Francisco and Washington, D.C., have provided paid sick days for several years. A dozen other states and cities are considering legislation. It's past time for New York City to follow suit.

I agree with Sanchez, who said, "All mothers should be able to provide for their children in their time of need without being concerned that they will lose their jobs. The City Council should make the passage of paid sick leave a priority in 2012."