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

Cold and flu season is here, but too many working New Yorkers—including 60 percent of low-income employees covered by NYC’s paid sick leave law—have heard little or nothing about their right to paid sick time. Lack of awareness severely hinders enforcement. After an initial steady rise in the proportion of low-income workers who reported that their jobs provided paid leave, over the past two years, we’ve seen that trend reverse.

In response City Council Member and Health Committee Chair Mark Levine, at the request of Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, recently introduced a bill (Intro 1797) to create a public education campaign to ensure that working New Yorkers know their rights. It would include the distribution of posters and other materials that could be voluntarily displayed at pharmacies and health providers throughout the city. The bill’s co-sponsors are Council Members Ben Kallos, Keith Powers, Margaret Chin, Farah N. Louis and Helen Rosenthal.

According to findings from the Unheard Third, an annual survey conducted by the Community Service Society, many working New Yorkers are not aware of their rights to paid sick time under the Earned Safe and Sick Time Act. This means that New Yorkers who are eligible for the benefit may not be taking advantage of it, putting their health and that of others around them at risk.

Consider this:

After New York City’s paid sick leave law went into effect in 2014, we saw a steady rise in the proportion of low-income workers who reported having paid sick time on their jobs. But that trend has now started to reverse. In the past two years, access to paid leave has fallen among low-income workers covered by the law. Prior to implementation, only 47 percent of low-income workers covered by the paid leave provision of the law (private sector employees working for employers of five or more) reported having paid leave on their jobs. By 2017, that figure had risen to 71 percent. But in the last two years, the percent of covered low-income workers with sick leave has dropped to below 60 percent. By comparison, in 2019, 78 percent of covered moderate and higher-income workers had paid sick leave.

Enforcement of the paid sick leave law is largely complaint-driven. But workers are unable to assert their right to paid sick time if they are unaware of the law. That’s why awareness matters. In 2019, 60 percent of low-income workers covered by the New York City law had heard little or nothing about it and nearly two-thirds of covered workers without paid sick time were unaware of their right to it.

The de Blasio Administration acknowledges that low awareness is hindering the reach of new labor standards passed by the City Council. In their latest report on the state of workers’ rights in NYC, the Department of Consumer Affairs reports on findings from testimony at its July 17, 2018 public hearing.

Public outreach has shown to be effective in raising awareness about labor standards. At the height of the paid sick leave advertising and public education campaign in 2014, many workers said they had heard “a lot” about the paid sick days law. But only a small fraction of covered workers now say they know a lot about the law. For example, among covered workers, the percent of immigrants who had heard a lot about the law was 31 percent in 2014; now it is 10 percent. Among low-income workers in smaller firms (<50), 28 percent had heard a lot about the law in 2014; now it’s just nine percent. Among black New Yorkers, the percent who had heard a lot about the law fell from 38 percent in 2014 to 20 percent in 2019.

Less than half of low-income employed city residents said they knew a lot or something about the paid sick days law in 2019. In contrast, 78 percent were aware of the increase in the minimum wage, which was widely touted in subway ads this year.

Posters in pharmacies, hospitals and other health care locations reminding working people of their right to paid sick leave in NYC offers an optimal moment for public education; it would reach people at a time and place when their health concerns are on their minds and the information is highly relevant. Moreover, widespread posters raising public awareness would make it harder for employers to deny workers paid sick time they are entitled to under our law.

Enactment of the city’s Paid Sick Days law, and its subsequent expansion, was one of the city’s most far-reaching labor policy achievements. It’s helped make the workplace more equitable for low-wage workers and immigrants. We must do all we can to ensure that those who are eligible for the benefit take full advantage of it.

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 175 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.