DMI Blog

Corinne Ramey

Liveblogging the Marketplace of Ideas: Paid Sick Leave

2531881434_7792db5a8f_m.jpgA few weeks ago, DMI released the newest installment of our Injustice Index. I found the facts on sick leave somewhat shocking. One in three employees without paid sick leave worry that taking time off when they are sick would jeopardize their job, and 58% of employees without paid sick leave say they can't afford to take time off for sickness. Fifty-two percent of NYC restaurant workers say they have gone to work sick, which isn't surprising considering that 86% don't have paid sick leave.

2531706858_cdf2b83fa9_m.jpgAfter reading the index, paid sick leave started to seem like a no-brainer. And I found myself wondering, if San Francisco could pass mandatory paid sick leave, why couldn't New York? And what about the rest of the country? One hundred and thirty six countries require employers to provide a week or more of paid sick leave annually, so why doesn't the U.S.?

So it is with particular interest that I sit here at the Harvard Club, waiting for the DMI Marketplace of Ideas event on paid sick leave to begin. I'm excited the panel this morning, which in addition to featured speaker Sara Flocks will include Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney, the Co-sponsor of the Healthy Families Act, a national paid sick leave bill, New York City Councilwoman Gale Brewer, and David R. Jones, President & CEO of the Community Service Society of New York.

8:17 a.m.

Rev. Jim Forbes starts off with a quick intro.

I'm pleased to welcome you to what we delight in calling our "Marketplace of Ideas." We're not just interested in theories, but in highlighting public policies with a proven track record that have been successful and "ought to be considered here in New York City." He calls paid sick leave a simple policy that we understand intuitively. Forty-six million working people in the U.S. don't have it, he says, despite the fact that it seems like a very intuitive policy. "When they get sick they have to make a miserable choice," he says, choosing between getting paid and staying home to get better.

In 2006, he says, SF voted in favor of a ballot initiative to require employers to provide paid sick leave to employees citywide. It's also been passed in D.C., and other states are considering the laws as well.

"SF started something and here in NY we are falling between.... and we got to catch up."


2531778086_d5d4a4d59f_m.jpgHe introduces Sara Flocks, who co-founded Young Workers United. She helped found the organization in 2002, and since then they've won hundreds of thousands of dollars in backpay for workers who were denied it. The organization also helped to expand health coverage and raise the minimum wage. Sara is currently studying for a masters in public administration at Harvard.

He also introduces the panel: Hon. Carolyn Maloney, Councilwoman Gale Brewer, and David Jones, the president of the Community Service Society of NYC.


Sara makes her way to the podium. "Thank you so much," she says. "I'm honored and awed to be here." She jokes that she thought about calling in sick because she sprained her ankle, and the audience laughs.

We passed paid sick days in 2006, she says. It was very unexpected. I'm not a policy maker, and we're not a policy organization. She says that they got a lot of info from a Schoolhouse Rock cartoon called "How a Bill Becomes a Law," which elicits a chuckle from the audience.


We don't pass laws, we enforce them, she says. She gives examples of things that Young Workers United normally does. "We're having a hard enough time enforcing laws that exist. How are we going to pass a law?" she said the org wondered when they were considering paid sick leave.

"What we found was that we were getting the same stories over and over again." She mentions walking into the Cheesecake Factory restaurant, and said she noticed a server wearing sunglasses. The server said that she had pinkeye, and that her boss had said he'd fire her if she didn't come in.


She tells a story of a woman who was pregnant and was hemorrhaging, and lost her job because her boss said that if she didn't come to work she'd get fired.

"This is what we heard over and over again." She said workers told of working through pain, sprains, stomach flu, and other problems.


We found that the stories we heard in SF were being told all across the nation. "We're looking at a public health emergency -- it's not just a human rights issue." She said that 86% of food service workers have no paid sick days.

Most people without paid sick days are women, immigrants, from working families, and people of color. These were the people who didn't have sick days, and desperately needed them.


She said that Young Workers United looked for laws, but yet there was no law in the country that "gave workers the right to get sick." She said that especially immigrant workers would come in and say that they were being forced to work when they were sick. But yet, there was no law that could help those people.

2531717948_9ebdb8968f_m.jpg"The best we could do was to offer to do the best we can on a case by case basis."

The tipping point came during a training with the Workers Justice Committee. "We were doing a training on workers rights," she said, and we asked where workers got minimum wage, overtime, and breaks.

Did bosses ever suggest that a ten minute break would be good for low-wage employees? "We fought for those rights," she said. "Our brothers and sisters in the labor movement gave our lives for those rights."

"I think all of us had a kind of collective 'ah ha!' movement."

We realized that we had a moral obligation to make sure that people do not have to work when they're sick.


Low wage workers shouldn't have to choose between making the rent and buying food and being able to stay home with their children.

We wanted a law that was worker-friendly. We wanted to close the loopholes that exist.

We got all of our members together, she said, and brought together the workers and had them write a law. The one thing we didn't want to compromise was to cover every single worker in SF: full time, part time, private, public.

She said that according to the law sick days cap out at 9, and cap out at 5 for small businesses. You only need a doctor's note after three consecutive days. You can take care of family members, or can also designate someone who is not a family member that you can take a day for.

They also wrote in enforcement, so that employers will find it better to enforce that pay the fine.

"That was basically the law. What we needed then was a strategy."


We decided we would go through the electoral process. It would help us meet several important goals.

1. It would raise the power of young and immigrant workers. "We see them everyday -- they pour us coffee and serve us food." But we don't see what it's like for these workers at home, and we wanted to put them at the forefront.

2. We wanted to have a massive education campaign. We wanted lots of exposure -- in the Spanish press, Chinese press, the buses, etc. "This is a law where workers have to stand up to their boss and ask to take a paid sick day." We wanted to empower them to do that.

3. We didn't want to have to compromise. We didn't want to exempt part time workers or other categories. "This law is designed to raise the floor for all workers, especially those at the bottom."


The coalition was almost all grassroots organizations: St. Peter's Housing Committee, the Chinese Progressive Association, UNITE HERE, etc.

We did outreach, door working, lots of visuals -- she mentions "sick days superheroes."

"We spent a lot of time at City Hall dressed as germs!"

We always had workers speaking to the press. And our message was simple: "All workers deserve paid sick days." And this issue polls well -- 70% of people support this issue.

It's healthy, it's not expensive for business, it's compassionate -- pretty much a win-win law for everyone.


She said the initiative got massive coverage in the Chinese and Spanish press. She said that the Chamber of Commerce and Golden Gate Restaurant Association were opposed to the initiative, but didn't fight it.

On election day the legislation passed by 70%. And we passed universal health care at the same time.

"It was pretty was a pretty amazing moment."

A lot of what I get when I speak is that SF is workers' paradise -- SF isn't replicable. "But what we say to that is that no one is giving us paid sick days. If we didn't stand up and fight for paid sick days then we wouldn't' have them

"The time is always right to do what's right," she says, quoting Martin Luther King, Jr. And now is the right time for paid sick days.


Time for the panel. Andrea starts by introducing the panel, and jokes that she's slipped them money so they can disagree amongst themselves, and the panel smiles.

First question is for Carolyn. Andrea says that the rest of the world offers much better paid leave than the U.S. "My question is, why does the U.S. lag behind?" she says.

We're working on it, Carolyn says. She says that she was terrified she'd be fired when she had her first child. She said she called her boss and he said that women just leave when they have children, and don't come back. "We have made some progress, but not much," she said.

We passed in 1976 the Anti-Discrimination and Pregnancy Act. When women call my office we have to tell them that they can fight this. She mentions women being fired who pump milk in the bathroom in their lunch hour.

"Thank goodness we have some states and some cities that can lead the way," she says. "The federal government should be passing these bills." She mentions the Healthy Families Act, which is currently before Congress. The bill guarantees firms of more than 7 employees seven days of paid sick days a year. "19 million Americans would gain paid sick leave."

"It's not only a moral issue but a social issue." The people who lack paid leave are in constant contact with the public, and when they come to work sick it's a public health issue. "In one hotel in Nevada a hotel worker infected 600 guests," she said.

She also mentions a bill for paid sick leave for pregnancy. She says we're tied for last of 163 countries for paid family leave -- we're tied with Swaziland and Papua New Guinea, she says. We're tied for last for protections for breast feeding as well.


We have a paid sick leave bill before Congress, and we're working to pass it.

She said that there's paid sick leave for federal workers, but there's no paid family leave. She hopes that if this can be passed for federal workers then it could move to everybody else.


Andrea introduces Gale Brewer next. "Can New York City have paid sick leave?" asks Andrea.

Gale gives an overwhelming YES. Ok, you're done, says Andrea, as the audience laughs, and Sara asks her if she's ready to dress up like a germ.

Gale says that paid sick leave is especially important for NYC because of the booming restaurant and tourism industry. "These industries have a lot of need for this kind of legislation." She also says that spreading diseases is a concern because of the tendency to spread disease in subways.

She says it would be important to work with unions.

The short answer to your question is yes, and we have a bill that has been drafted that is modeled after SF. We'd never get a ballot initiative passed here, so we're going the legislative route.


She says that NYC is rich in putting together coalitions, and mentions labor and immigrant groups.

Andrea asks Gale one more question. "Is it political suicide at this particular moment to support a paid sick leave policy that will make it harder for employers to stay in business?"

Gale says she thinks that this is a good time. "People are only going to stay in a business if that business gives them the ability to be sustainable."

David Jones agrees. "We can't wait for the perfect economic time to come along for something so essential."


Andrea introduces David Jones. "Is this an issue that can bring New Yorkers of different socioeconomic statuses together?"

He mentions the "invisible third" -- there's a certain chauvinism that creeps into the non-profit sector.

He says that these people say that they want paid sick leave, both at low and higher income levels. "But the problem is that we're going in the wrong direction."

In '02, 40% of people had sick leave, but now it's crept down to 30%. "The working poor are losing this benefit." He said that when the org did the living wage campaign much of the not-for-profit sector protested. We need not-for-profits to go along with these.

"You're essentially saying that we're trying to save the poor, but we're going to impoverish our own workers."

His comments bring some applause from the room.


He also says that electeds need to be held accountable. They're not fighting for their own, he says. He mentions a study of security guards, who earn $10 a hour and don't get health insurance or time off. He said that about a third of the security workers are being subcontracted by the city. "The city is getting a real cheap ride here," he said. It becomes a show game that we have to recognize, he says.

David, that's such a good idea, says Carolyn!


2531691768_6ba95b2782_m.jpgCarolyn says that nothing has been passed to help families since 1993, which was the FMLA. Where are our family values? she asks.

She says it was thrilling to be able to vote in favor of it. The major opposition to the FMLA was small businesses, she said. The FMLA applies to businesses above 50 employees, but Carolyn said she'd like to expand the bill to 25 employees.

"It's been a very hard thing to lower that number," she said. She would also like the bill to cover parent teacher conferences and doctor visits. "These are modest expansions, but we're not able to pass them on a federal level."


Andrea: If we were to consider paid sick leave in NYC, would small businesses be the resistance? How did SF do it, and what can we learn from it?

Sara replies. She says that large businesses are the ones saying that small businesses are going to get hurt. "One of the things about paid sick days that's so great is that it's not that expensive," she says. She said that with a lot of small businesses, the worker doesn't' get replaced when sick. She says that small businesses were worried about how to keep track of paid sick days.

And we're leveling the playing field -- a lot of people want to provide these benefits, but can't because their competitors aren't.


Gale says that part of being an environmentally friendly city is being a healthy city. She says that people understand that this is important to families, and is likely to be easier to pass than a living wage.

David mentions the security guards at the Empire State Building. "The unwillingness to provide basic support for people who are critical first responders" is amazing. People don't know what they're doing here. These are the people who save us when we're stuck in elevators and protest security.

"We need to put a human face on this." We need to bring this home for people.


Andrea decides to play devil's advocate, and reads from a web memo from the Heritage Foundation. The memo gives three arguments:

1. Some workers have used FMLA to excuse tardiness and to skip work.

2. Co-workers face the burden of covering for shirking employees who misuse their leave.

3. Customers suffer unpredictable delays and shortcomings in service.

"These are the arguments against paid sick leave by one of the most prominent right wing funded think tank," she laughs.


David responds. He mentions Giuliani's welfare person, who thought that even food stamps caused dependency. He says that the only way to keep that kind of rhetoric under control is to have political consequences.

"I'm sure they have paid sick leave at the Heritage Foundation!" he says.

Carolyn agrees. "The most important public policy tool is an election," she says. She mentions that the Bush administration is currently looking at ways to curb and role back the Family and Medical Leave Act.


Sara said that abuse was one of the number one arguments that was used against them. She said that some people had mentioned the "martini flu" -- people got drunk and used paid sick days. She said that behind closed doors this was an issue which as discussed with the Chamber of Congress.

Andrea has one more question. "This is an opt-in," she says. "You need to assert your own rights." Andrea asks what the likelihood is that low-wage workers will assert their right to paid leave.


In our city, I think that groups like the immigrant rights group and Working Families Party will help to educate people, Gale says. I do think that it's dependent on government and the non-profit advocacy orgs to make it known.

Carolyn says that companies are settling discrimination suits left and right. She mentions a book that talks about family friendly policies in companies, and how people were sidelined for taking these benefits. "Having a child is becoming the biggest discrimination against women," she says. She mentions "flex-time," which she says doesn't cost any money. The bill allows employees to talk to employers to arrange their hours to also have a family.

She said that 4 out of 5 small businesses are started by women because they're sidelined in larger companies.


Andrea introduces the first guest questioner, Sherry Lewiant. She says her org has been working with groups all over the country. "This is really a movement," she says. She says she wants to learn more about the implementation. "You wrote a great law...but it doesn't mean anything unless people take advantage of it.'

Sara says that the law wasn't implemented until 90 days after the election because there were so many questions. "A lot of the issues are going to be around tracking," she said. Sara said that nothing has come up. "We want to wait for that one big case," she said. But a lot of what happened in implementation is employer confusion. A lot of people didn't know how track it and there were a lot of technical issues. She said that they relied on other organization to answer employer questions.

The other thing that we've tried to do is to make sure that employers are recording them. We don't know how much that has happened, but I expect that will be an issue.


Andrea asks Gale a question. "Do we have the kind of regulatory arm to enforce this is NYC?" She said that NYC has a labor office and Commission on Human Rights, and both offices would need to be "beefed up" to be effective.

We're talking about portable health insurance, and we need to talk about portable sick leave.


Next question: How much of the obstacle to passage of paid sick leave is due to large campaign contributions from special interest groups? If we could eliminate these contributions how much of a difference would it make?

Carolyn says that it seems like limiting campaign contributions doesn't seem to work. We need to take money out of politics and have public financing for campaigns, she says. "But the will of the American public isn't there."

But the answer is to level the playing field by eliminating money in politics. "Many people think passing legislation is easy, but Sara made a good statement of how difficult it is to get the public behind you!"

She mentions that it took five years to pass an anti-rape bill, despite the fact that nobody was opposed to it.


There are many good ideas out there, but it just takes a lot of effort and work. "In my youth I would have been one of those germs on the steps," she says.

Another question: She says that domestic and farm workers are excluded from laws. We have people working for less than the minimum wage, and that's because there's no laws to represent us.

She describes the challenges of passing bills. "This industry has been excluded from laws since slavery."

Gale mentions a city council bill that would help those workers who go through employment agencies. She says that would need to happen at the state level.


Donna Dolan, the head of NYS Paid Family Leave Coalition, is the next guest questioner.

Donna says we're at a "critical juncture" for paid family leave for New York State. She said that CA passed a law in 2004, then Washington state in 2007, and finally New Jersey in 2008. "We want New York State to be the fourth state," she said. She said that the legislative session ends in June, and they would like to get paid family leave by then. She encourages people to lobby their congress members or send postcards.

She says that new mascot for the campaign is a stork, which delivers the postcards to Albany.

Do we need paid family leave and paid sick leave, asks Andrea. "Do we need a stork and a germ?"

She says that paid family leave is longer term -- you use it for a pregnancy or long term illness. Paid sick leave is for short term leave and incidental illness.


Donna asks Sara a question. What happened in your meetings in SF?

Sara said that representatives from all kinds of industries came to the meetings. "Even though they opposed that we were going to the ballot, they were helpful in crafting a law that they could live with."

She said that the biggest opponent was the restaurant industry. "They tried to kill this bill at every opportunity."

She recommends starting early and listening to suggestions from industry. "I wouldn't discount them."

Carolyn says that she has a bill that is gaining momentum on the federal level that gives leave to federal employees.


A professor from Hofstra University asks how we go from values that are widely shared to public policy. We agree with paid sick leave, but how do we get there? "We have a lot of separated groups working on good projects. What do you do as elected officials to try to bring those groups together to agree on public policy?"

Gale says that coalition building is important. She mentions immigrant and labor groups and domestic workers. She also mentions the Working Families Party model of both endorsement and policy. "All of these organizations are local and have impact now." I do think if we're going to pass this it would be good to do it now because there's momentum nationally and locally.

She mentions the trans fat ban and listing calories on menus. If we can pass these we can pass paid family leave -- things are changing.


Andrea asks if paid sick leave is likely to become an issue in the 2009 mayoral issue.

David says this is a great opportunity. "I think there's a yearning for a base for working people in the city of New York." A lot of us are saying that this may be one of the opportunities to try to line up candidates around issues like this."

Carolyn says that it comes down to votes. "We live in a democracy." Believe it or not, members of Congress listen to their constituents. She says that many of these issues are primarily women's issues, and that women need to be vocal in standing up for these issues. "We are 51% of the population, why are we letting them get away with this?"


She says she wrote a book called, Rumors of Our Progress Have Been Greatly Exaggerated. Why aren't we scoring on family votes and family votes and letting the public know where your legislator stands?

She talks about working with coalitions of women's groups. We should use this same network to pass positive things. The bottom line is we have to get organized and push for these issues. It's hard to pass legislation.


Andrea mentions, the DMI site where bills are evaluated and members of Congress are graded. Carolyn smiles when Andrea says she has a score of 100% so far this year.

A women from a local union speaks about her role to pass the paid sick leave law in D.C. She asks Gale about the opt-out provision in the law, and asks Sara about her experience in SF.


Gale mentions the importance of getting union input.

Sara talks about unions in SF. She says that unions have paid sick days in their contract, but many thought they could use it as a bargaining chip. Unions have opted out of the law, but been able to get other concessions.

She said that carpenters have leveraged the paid sick leave law to get a $2 an hour increase in health and welfare benefits.

Last question: How does the legislation affect undocumented immigrants? Sara says the law in SF does protect undocumented workers, since it protects any worker who is working. The office in SF doesn't ask if people are undocumented. "The restaurant industry is 80% undocumented workers -- it would fall apart."

She says that they had to fight to get the people into the regulatory office to do that work.


Andrea wraps it up, and asks each of the panelists to predict whether paid sick leave will be a reality in NYC and nationally.

Gale says they it's necessary to have everyone's support. The only way we're going to make it is a broad coalition.

David: I agree with Gale that this is the time. There's strong support across the state, and people need listen to their constituents.

Sara: I'm excited that New York is going to do this. Good luck!

Carolyn: Thanks to DMI for talking about these important issues. I predicts it will pass in the House, but die in the Senate.

But she does think a bill that pays for 9/11 workers will pass the House that pays for health care.

Big round of applause. There will be video clips from YouTube shortly, so check back soon!

***Legislation Discussed Today on***

Healthy Families Act

Family Leave Insurance Act

***Other legislation***

The Family and Medical Leave Expansion Act

9-11 Health and Compensation Act

Federal Employees Paid Parental Leave Act

***The law (not legislation) discussed today***

Family and Medical Leave Act

Corinne Ramey: Author Bio | Other Posts
Posted at 10:00 AM, May 28, 2008 in Health Care
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