Friday, May 21, 2010

City Council Pushes Paid Sick Day Bill by Lisa Fogarty - Queens Chronicle

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Many New Yorkers wouldn’t think of going to work with a contagious virus. But more than one million workers in the city are faced with a difficult choice any time they’re ill: they can fumble through the day, risking the possibility of infecting others or having their condition worsen, or stay home and lose a day’s wages.

The City Council has introduced two sick leave bills within the last two years that would require large and small businesses to offer employees five or nine days of paid sick leave, depending on the size of the company.

The latest bill, Intro 97, was proposed by City Councilman James Sanders Jr. (D-Laurelton), chairman of the Committee on Civil Service and Labor, in March. Despite what many of its opponents call “well-intentioned” provisions, the bill, like its predecessor Intro 1059, has sparked as much debate from business organizations as it has praise from workers.

If the bill passes, businesses with less than 20 employees would be required to offer five paid sick leave days, while those with 20 or more workers would have to offer nine days, all of which could be carried over to the following year. Sick leave could be used for physical or mental illness, as well as injury or health conditions, and would also include time off to care for sick family members. Small businesses wouldn’t be required to provide more than 40 hours of paid sick time in one year and any worker who takes more than three days’ leave would have to obtain a doctor’s note.

Some of the amendments made to Intro 97 include expanding the definition of a small business to mean one that employs 20 and not 10 workers, and excluding domestic violence coverage, something City Councilman Eric Ulrich (R-Ozone Park) says may have been an oversight.

“We’re trying to extend to workers the same benefits granted to union members and government employees,” said Ulrich, the sole Republican sponsor of Intro 97. “This is not a government entitlement; it’s not a handout. It’s something workers have to accrue over time.”

As of March 2009, 61 percent of private industry workers get paid sick time, compared with 89 percent of state and local workers, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. Forty-two percent of city workers, the majority of which work low-wage jobs, don’t get paid sick days, according to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research. The cost for implementing the city’s bill would be 25 cents per hour, according to the IWPR.

“For businesses that provide sick leave, the benefits are substantial,” said Kevin Miller, a senior research associate at the IWPR. “Sick workers who can stay home are more likely to think better of their employers.”

With the outbreak of the H1N1 virus last year, sick leave bills also address public health concerns and help to ensure contagious diseases don’t spread as rapidly, Miller said.

Councilman Daniel Dromm (D-Jackson Heights), who was a public school teacher for 25 years, said he recalls asking parents of sick students to retrieve their children and being told they couldn’t — they were afraid of getting fired if they took another day off.

“In a depressed economy we have to fight to make sure our workers are paid well and fairly,” Dromm said. The latest bill is a fair one that has been adjusted to address the concerns of small businesses and ensure they don’t have to shoulder an unfair burden, he said.

But flaws in the bill remain, opponents say. The bill is a “disincentive” for small businesses that are thinking of expanding because they know that once they go over a certain number of employees, the costs will become unfeasible, said Jack Friedman, executive director of the Queens Chamber of Commerce.

“The bill was designed to go after the retail and restaurant industries, which have many times hired illegal aliens and treated them unfairly,” Friedman said, adding the the chamber is in favor of cracking down on these business owners. “The vast majority of our employees are good. Unscrupulous employees will just find a way to skirt the bill.”

Friedman has proposed a shared-cost mechanism proposal similar to one used in New Jersey in which employees and employers kick in money for paid sick days — similar to the way social security and disability costs are handled.

Another potential problem in the bill that Ulrich said he recognizes is the inconsistency between how Intro 97 defines a small business and the guidelines proposed by the federal government. There are currently three federal sick leave bills stalled in the Senate and/or Assembly. The Healthy Families Act, which most closely resembles the City Council’s bill, calls for businesses with 15 or more workers to provide up to seven days of paid sick leave per year.

Ulrich said he thinks companies should offer five days, regardless of size, and that some small businesses should have the ability to be exempt because of hardship.

Two cities currently have sick leave bills. San Francisco passed its law in 2007 requiring businesses with fewer than 10 employees to offer five days per year and larger businesses to provide nine paid days. Unlike Intro 97’s proposal, workers’ accrual of sick time is not immediate; it starts 90 days after employment.

In Washington, DC employers who manage 100 or more workers must offer seven paid sick days, those with between 25 and 99 employees give five days and businesses with fewer than 25 workers offer three paid days.

A sick time law was passed by referendum in Milwaukee, but is currently in litigation.