David R. Jones (137830)
David R. Jones Credit: Contributed

Our mayor has been taking some hits from the press, and his critics, for pursuing his presidential ambitions.

Some argue that the mayor has put the interests of the city and New Yorkers in his rear-view mirror as he stumps in early primary states like South Carolina and Iowa, testing out policy narratives as he tries against long odds to capture the Democratic Party’s nomination for president.

Few political experts gave Bill de Blasio a chance of winning when he ran for mayor in 2013. Yet, he emerged victorious, primarily because the foundation of his campaign was addressing the spread of racial and income inequality: “City Hall too often has catered to the interests of the elite rather than the needs of everyday New Yorkers,” said candidate de Blasio in January 2013. “One in five of our fellow New Yorkers lives in poverty, and that’s not acceptable.”

To be sure, running for mayor of New York City and president of the United States are two entirely different endeavors. And success at one is certainly not a predictor of success at the other. In fact, history would suggest it’s an enormous disadvantage, politically speaking.

Irrespective of how things shake out in the mayor’s bid for the White House, and putting aside the fact that we haven’t always agreed with some of his policies, one thing is undeniable: de Blasio can take credit for advancing bold, progressive policies that are benefitting the city’s working poor and middle classes. Whether that will be enough to sustain his presidential aspirations is anyone’s guess. But it’s not going unnoticed, particularly among the city’s vulnerable, low-wage immigrant workers. Just ask Juniya Montomery, 55, a wheelchair agent at JFK International Airport.

He stands to benefit from legislation the mayor supports and has been talking up on the hustings – a law mandating most employers provide two weeks of paid vacation for workers each year. It was first proposed in 2014 by former City Council Member Jumaane Williams who is now the city’s Public Advocate. City Council Members Ayala, Chin, Gibson, Lander, Levin, Rivera and Rosenthal are prime sponsors.

No Vacation Nation

Hard to believe, but the United States is the only advanced economy in the world that does not mandate any paid vacation time for workers, according to a May 2019 Center for Economic and Policy Research paper, “No-Vacation Nation, Revised.” And findings from the 2018 Unheard Third survey, an annual Community Service Society (CSS) poll that samples the opinions of New York’s low-income residents, found that employees least likely to have paid vacation now are those with low incomes, working part-time, employed by small firms, in the retail sector or relying on tips.

Montomery, a Jamaican immigrant who lives in Queens, is one of 400 airport workers employed by PrimeFlight Aviation Services. About 95 percent of its non-management workers are immigrants and people of color, including skycaps, baggage agents, cabin cleaners and queue line workers. In year one of employment Montomery received 40 hours of combined sick and personal time. But he will not be able to draw 40 hours of paid vacation until his two year anniversary in October.

“Nobody goes into a minimum wage job to make a career out it,” said Montomery, a professional photographer who has worked retail jobs to support himself and his family. “However, if it becomes necessary to stay in a job longer that you anticipated, you should be treated humanely. Time off is essential to a person’s wellbeing. Time off to disconnect from work, relax, and spend time with family. Those of us in the service sector work hard. We should be entitled to time off like everyone else.”

Not surprisingly business groups oppose Intro 800-A, which would amend the city’s paid sick time law to require private sector employers of five or more employees to provide an additional 10 days for paid personal time to their employees. They claim it will harm small businesses, drive away employers and force layoffs. We heard similar complaints when paid sick days was first proposed. Those things never came to pass. Simply put, expanding protections and benefits for workers along with a higher minimum wage and predictable schedules has helped create a healthier and more stable workforce. It’s good public policy.

Nationwide, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 41 percent of private-industry workers in the lowest 10 percent of wage earners had access to paid vacation. By contrast, 92 percent of workers in the top 10 percent had access to paid vacation. Even when they do receive paid vacation days, low wage workers receive far less than what is available to their higher-wage counterparts. After a year on the job, a worker in the lowest 10 percent of wage earners had just five days of paid vacation on average while a worker in the top 10 percent had twice that amount (11 days).

The City estimates that 900,000 New Yorkers would benefit from this new policy. But it’s not clear when the City Council will hold a vote. For workers like Juniya Montomery, action is long overdue.

David R. Jones, Esq., is President and CEO of the Community Service Society of New York (CSS), the leading voice on behalf of low-income New Yorkers for more than 170 years. The views expressed in this column are solely those of the writer. The Urban Agenda is available on CSS’s website: www.cssny.org.