Recovery Time? Mayor Bloomberg’s Tentative Support for Paid Sick Days is Encouraging - But New York Needs Action
It may be the biggest news you missed during the pre-holiday week. At the Working Families Party's Mayoral Forum on Thursday night Mayor Michael Bloomberg articulated the need for paid sick days in New York City, acknowledging "the reality of the needs of people who work in the city" and referencing San Francisco's successful policy guaranteeing all working people compensated time off work to recover from illness or care for sick loved ones. (For more on the San Francisco law, see the transcript and video from DMI's May 2008 event on the policy.)
"If you're a worker, you have to make sure that you can take care of your own health, you can take care of the health of your family, you also have to make sure you can... pay for groceries at the end of the week... we also, incidentally, don't want people who are sick and contagious to go to work and so we want people to stay home."
The mayor seems to understand the problem. But in terms of a solution, his response left a lot to be desired: "the devil is in the details... I can't give you a blanket answer yes or no." In other words, we'll get back to you.
But the nearly one million working New Yorkers who lack a single paid sick day can't afford to wait around. Scientists predict that the H1N1 flu pandemic will continue through the summer with an even greater resurgence of the disease this coming fall and winter. New York City must act quickly to ensure that sickened residents can afford to miss work.
Mayor Bloomberg seems to miss the urgency, suggesting that requiring employers to provide paid sick days is fine for large businesses but might burden small ones too much. Yet he acknowledges that it is precisely the small companies that are least likely to offer paid sick days already. A policy limited to large employers would leave out many - if not most - of the New Yorkers who lack the time off they need to recover from illness. As a result, it would do little to protect the public at large from the spread of contagious disease.
What's more, a look at San Francisco's experience demonstrates that the concern about small business affordability is misplaced. While there are costs involved, a policy of requiring paid sick days also benefits small companies by reducing turnover, increasing employee productivity, and leveling the playing field for small employers that are already doing the right thing by offering sick workers time off. After the San Francisco ordinance passed, researchers found that employment in San Francisco did not suffer after the implementation of the ordinance, and in fact the industry most affected by the new mandate (restaurant and hospitality businesses) saw strong job growth relative to other counties in the region.
The business groups that had initially opposed the ordinance in San Francisco admit that it has posed few problems for their members. The Golden Gate Restaurant Association called the law "successful" and acknowledged that employee abuse of the new benefit was not widespread. In 2008, a spokesperson for the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce admitted "we really have not heard much about it being a major issue for a lot of businesses."
Mayor Bloomberg is right to link paid sick days to necessary federal action on providing universal health coverage, as his recent op-ed in the Daily News advocated. But guaranteeing paid sick days in New York City is the rare policy that would not require action by Albany or by Washington. New York City can do it all by itself. And we need mayoral leadership to get there. Mayoral candidate Bill Thompson was more straightforward in his own commitment to enacting paid sick days in New York City, although he, too, seemed to have unspecified reservations about San Francisco's successful model. It would be good to hear more about the details of his vision.
The WFP forum was a solid start to the substantive conversation about paid sick days and a host of other policy issues. But the conversation can't end there. As we gear up for the municipal elections, New Yorkers need more debate, discussion, and analysis of the pressing issues and what it will take to move New York forward.