In this city where the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer–as underscored by the latest Census Bureau report showing poverty on the rise in New York City–one has to wonder what it will take for low-wage workers to start getting the benefits they deserve.
We as a society cannot guarantee that full-time, year-round workers can earn enough to lift their family out of poverty. We can’t even guarantee that if they take a day off of work because they are sick or their child is sick that they will still have a job the next day, let alone get paid for it.
Sick workers are not productive. And they are apt to get other workers sick as well. If a person comes to work ill in fear of not getting paid or losing their job, he or she puts the entire workforce at risk. In addition, a worker whose child is sick is preoccupied with trying to figure out how to keep the child cared for or, in some cases, a sick child is forced to go to school because that is the only alternative. Sick leave is not just an economic issue; it is also a public health issue.
For more than three years now, a law requiring employers to provide their employees with a modest, minimum number of paid sick days has been languishing in the City Council. Despite overwhelming support from New York City residents, and overwhelming support within the City Council itself, Speaker Christine Quinn won’t bring the measure up for a vote.
And it is not too difficult to figure out why. The embarrassing gulf between the rich and the poor is not just about income. It is also about influence. And as long as the majority of people who do not have paid sick days are low-wage workers–the ones working at the fine dining establishments, not eating there–don’t expect a sense of urgency from too many politicians to make the issue move.
Every time a law is proposed to improve the lives of low-wage workers, we hear the same cries from business interests and the politicians they influence. Small businesses will suffer! Jobs will be lost! And time and time again, when the change is allowed–after too many years of struggling, after the status quo has been tolerated for far too long–what happens? The world doesn’t end. Businesses adjust and do just fine. Opponents move on unscathed. But real harm has been done to the workers who had to wait years to gain fair labor practices and a little more dignity. And so it goes.
Frankly, it’s quite astonishing that we’re even debating this issue. The economic research and experience in places such as Connecticut and San Francisco, which already have paid sick days, show no adverse impact on job growth. Indeed, the relatively small cost of paid sick days–0.8 percent of private sector compensation–is less than the recent minimum wage increases. Perhaps this is one of the reasons pro-business organizations such as the Harlem Business Alliance and the Greater Harlem Chamber of Commerce have supported the measure. In the City Council, 37 of the 51 members have said they will support the legislation, and we applaud them. They recognize that passing this legislation will help small businesses–the backbone of our economy–not harm them, by stabilizing the very jobs of those who shop on 125th Street and elsewhere in our city.
To those City Council members who have yet to support this much-needed legislation but represent constituents who stand to benefit from its passage, it’s time to get onboard and tell the speaker to bring this matter to a vote.