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Testimony Before The New York City Council Committee on Civil Service and Labor on Sick Time

Regarding Int. 97-A relating to the provision of sick time earned by employees

March 22, 2013

My name is Socheatta Meng, and I am Legislative Counsel for the New York Civil Liberties Union (“NYCLU”). I would like to thank the Committee on Civil Service and Labor for inviting the NYCLU to provide testimony today on this legislation that would provide employees with paid sick time.

The NYCLU, the state affiliate of the American Civil Liberties Union, is a not-for-profit, non-partisan organization with eight offices across the state, and nearly 50,000 members. The NYCLU’s mission is to defend and promote the fundamental principles, rights and constitutional values embodied in the Bill of Rights of the U.S. Constitution and the Constitution of the State of New York.

In New York City, many workers struggle to maintain a job and care for their families. When an employee or a family member falls seriously ill, balancing the needs of family and the demands of a job can become overwhelming. Both the family and job performance suffer.

This proposed legislation would require that New York City employers pay their workers for five sick days per year. The bill would allow workers to take time off to care for themselves or a family member without having to sacrifice their pay.

The NYCLU urges the City Council to put this bill up for a vote, and to pass this important legislation.

In this city, approximately 1.5 million workers are not allowed a single paid sick day. When illness strikes, these workers must choose between going to work – and perhaps exposing others to a contagious infection – or staying home, without pay.

For low-wage workers who live paycheck to paycheck, a single day without pay could mean not being able to afford groceries, or pay the rent at the end of the month. What’s worse, many workers who stay home when sick also run the risk of losing their jobs. According to one study, nearly a quarter of workers reported that they lost a job or were threatened with the loss of their job because they needed time off when they or a family member fell ill.

The lack of a paid sick day benefit is harmful to all workers, but it is especially harmful to low-income workers. According to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics, only 32 percent of those workers in the bottom quarter of wage earners receive paid sick leave, as compared with 87 percent of those workers in the top quarter of wage earners.

It is these workers, and their families, who are most vulnerable when illness strikes or an elderly parent needs care. It is these workers who must face the dilemma of caring for their families’ well-being when doing so requires a day off from work – and the possibility of losing a day’s pay, or losing their job.

And it is these workers, at the lower end of the wage scale, who are disproportionately represented in communities of color. According to a recent report by the Community Service Society, approximately two-thirds of low-income Latinos cannot take a paid day off to care for themselves or a family member when sick. Among low-income black workers, more than half are not allowed a paid sick day.

Despite New Yorkers’ clear need for a paid sick-leave benefit, the main source of opposition to its adoption comes from those who claim that it will harm small businesses. This assertion is false. First, the cost that this legislation would impose on businesses is minimal, an estimated $0.22 per hour for employees receiving leave. This is comparable to a tiny increase in the minimum wage, which research and experience have shown do not adversely impact jobs, even at higher rates of increase. Second, the small cost associated with this benefit is offset by related benefits that employers reap: lower employee turnover, higher productivity, and the reduced spread of illnesses. Third, the experience in other jurisdictions that mandate paid sick leave demonstrate that the policy has been introduced without the negative effects on businesses that were predicted. Thus far, six cities and the state of Connecticut have introduced paid sick leave laws, most recently Philadelphia. Analysis of the impact San Francisco’s adoption of mandatory paid sick leave – a more generous benefit than the one now proposed for New York City – found no evidence that the policy has been detrimental to businesses.

To the extent that this legislation would impose even a minimal cost on businesses in New York, supporters of the bill have agreed to several amendments: the legislation exempts “mom and pop” businesses (with less than five employees) from the requirement of providing workers paid sick leave; and for new businesses with less than twenty employees, there is a grace period of one year before employees must be provided paid sick leave.

Int. 97-A has been amended to include a “Changing shifts” provision (§17-505), which provides that an employee who has called in sick may upon mutual consent of employer and employee pick up another shift in the same period. If the employee exercises this option, she is not paid for the sick day; the extra shift is, in effect, substituted for the sick day. Between parties with equal bargaining power, this provision may serve the interests of employer and employee. However, in such a relationship the negotiating power is not equal. And there is therefore a well-founded concern that employees may be compelled to work a shift, against their wishes (and possibly harmful to their well-being) after taking a sick day – or suffer retaliation upon refusal to do so.

Consequently the “Changing shifts” provision may compromise the ability of shift workers – including the city’s 200,000 restaurant workers – to utilize paid sick days as intended by the legislation. In a letter sent to the City Council, Beily Durbin gives credence to this concern. A restaurant worker for twenty years, Ms. Durbin describes in her letter the pervasive and persistent pressure workers experience to exchange shifts with someone who is sick. She also describes the harsh repercussions, including termination, for being absent from work, even when sick. Ms. Durbin’s letter suggests that the “Changing shifts” provision may work to the disadvantage of the most vulnerable, and poorly paid, workers.

Concern regarding compliance with the intent of the legislation, should it become law, is not limited to the “Changing shifts” provision alone — there is good reason to expect that employers may not comply with the paid sick day mandate at all. For this reason the City Council should include affirmative measures in the proposed legislation that will help to ensure compliance. To this end, the bill should be amended, once again, to mandate that the City Council’s Committee on Oversight and Investigation conduct a citywide field investigation, including extensive interviews with workers, to evaluate the degree of compliance with the new law, and to propose ongoing enforcement measures, if warranted. The investigation should be undertaken one year from the effective date of the new law.

There is no doubt that all New Yorkers need paid sick days. This is clear to members of the public – 83 percent of whom support a law that would require employers to provide paid sick leave. The City Council also recognizes the importance of this bill for the workers of New York City, and for their families. A veto-proof majority of 37 City Council Members are co-sponsors of the bill.

And, yet, despite the widespread support for mandatory paid sick leave, this bill has been held from a vote.

New York’s working families need this bill. The right to paid sick leave is a fundamental human right – a basic right recognized in international human rights documents such as the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women. If passed, this bill would significantly improve the quality of life for millions of workers.

The NYCLU urges Speaker Christine Quinn, the members of the Committee on Civil Service and Labor and all of your colleagues on the City Council to the right thing: put this bill up for a vote.

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