In Bloomberg's Healthy NYC, Still Afraid to Take (on) Sick Days

Why is regulating soda size okay -- but mandating sick days taboo? It's more complicated than you think.

Bloomberg and Quinn appear together at a news conference in 2010. (Reuters)

Mayor Mike Bloomberg's New York City has been a veritable petri dish of public health experiments: banning smoking in bars and restaurants before anyone else did, posting calorie counts on menus for all to see, and, perhaps, preventing the sale of sodas if they're anything bigger than mid-sized. So why is requiring businesses to give workers paid sick days off proving too radical a notion for the city's top political leaders?

Advocates are, at the moment, pushing for a bill that would let a wide swathe of New York City workers take unscheduled time off to care for themselves or a loved one. Bloomberg is against it. So is the Speaker of the City Council, Christine Quinn. It's not that paid sick days aren't a good idea, Quinn has said, it's just she does not think "it would be wise to implement this policy, in this way, at this time." On paper, at least, there's a veto-proof majority in the city council backing the bill; more than three dozen councilmembers have put their names on it. But Quinn refuses to bring the paid sick days bill up for a vote.

Some folks grumble that the assumed mayoral hopeful is engaging in a round of "hippie punching," eager to win the favor of the business community and position herself as the Democratic candidate Republicans can be comfortable with. Others argue that the bill is simply bad for businesses. Listen to the friends and foes of the sick leave bill and you quickly get a sense of the pickle.

"It's a bit nonsensical for them to be pro-public health and anti-sick days," says Dan Cantor, executive director of the Working Families Party, a force in city politics. "It's complicated to run for mayor, but this is not that complicated."

Then there's Kathy Wylde, president and CEO of the business-focused Partnership for New York City. "We do not see it as a public health issue," she says. "There's been no evidence that there's a public health nexus with this bill." She goes on. "Once people understand the complexities of the issue, they understand that it's not all motherhood and apple pie. It's not that simple."

Into that mess steps a would-be next mayor of New York: Christine Quinn.

The paid sick days bill is needed, say its backers, in part because the American way of life has changed. With the two-income families the new normal, Mom simply isn't home all the time to take care of sick kids and ailing parents. The number of New Yorkers without paid sick leave is a point of contention -- the bill's advocates say it's more than a million, but opponents say that's crazily inflated. Whatever the actual number, advocates for the bill say lack of paid leave drives up health-care costs, increases job turnover, and leads to job insecurity that isn't good for anyone.

New York City's Provision of Paid Sick Time Earned by Employees Act is still being futzed with about the edges, but the basics are simple enough. If a company has between five and 19 employees, workers accrue up to five days off a year; for bigger companies, it's nine days. "Mom and pop" shops have to offer unpaid leave, and they can't fire people for taking it. New companies get a year grace period before having to comply. Any leave time that a company already offers workers would count, as long as they can use it without advance notice.

The reality is, when it comes to health policy, Quinn has tiptoed where the mayor has thudded.

All that adds up to a major public health policy that should, say advocates, have particular appeal to New York City's top brass. "It's natural that if you're worrying about the size of a soda," says Vicki Shabo, director of work and family programs at Washington DC's National Partnership of Women & Families, "you're also worrying whether the person serving it to you had no choice but to sneeze in it."

New York City is simply the latest forum for a push that's happening across the country.

In 2004, a report from the Institute of Women's Policy Research found that nearly half of all American workers lacked paid sick days. A Healthy Families Act bubbled up in Congress but didn't go much of anywhere. There's still attention on the national level -- two years ago, Michelle Obama talked about the working person's nearly impossible dream of a "delicate balance of perfection" when it comes to the logistics of caring for themselves and those around them -- but the understanding among activists is that local is where ground can be covered quickly. San Francisco kicked things off with a referendum in 2006, and the D.C. and Seattle city councils and Connecticut legislature have followed suit with efforts to legislate on behalf of new sick day rules. In 2008, Milwaukee passed a sick days law, but it was later superceded by a state law that required uniform Wisconsin-wide leave policies. (The debate has been something of a model-legislation face-off: the National Partnership for Women & Families makes a sample bill available and the American Legislative Exchange Council, aka ALEC, has reportedly pointed to Wisconsin's legislation as a template for a counter-push).

Paid leave advocates point to San Francisco's go at paid leave as a case study in the policy's lower than feared costs. One oft-quoted study found that San Francisco workers generally used just three days a year of the five or nine days allotted; a quarter didn't use any. Six out of seven employers reported that the policy didn't do anything to damage their profitability.

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Nancy Scola is a writer based in New York. She has written for New York, Salon, and Seed, and is a frequent contributor to The American Prospect.

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