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

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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.

But New York City?

"There's no analogy there," says Wylde, the well-connected leader of the Partnership for New York City and an opponent of the bill. For one thing, New York City is the region's economic engine; San Francisco thrives in large part because of neighboring Silicon Valley. Compared to New York City, San Francisco's economy is tiny and homogenous. As opponents tell it, paid sick leave as municipal public policy would be both well-meaning and dumb for New Yorkers. Paid leave for workers is a federal issue, says Wylde, one a city government can't and shouldn't tackle. What's more, says Wylde, "it's one-size-fits all whether you're a restaurant, a barber shop, or a giant corporation." Wylde is backed up by Nancy Ploeger, president of the Manhattan Chamber of Commerce. The bill, said Ploeger in an email, uses a definition of a big (and regulable) business that is far smaller than what the federal government does. It's too much for companies to bear; a Partnership survey estimated that complying with the paid sick leave policy would cost New York City companies $789 million a year. Workers in many of the industries without sick leave, argues Wylde, place value on other things, like the freedom to barter days off or to get hired on for work quickly.

"What we've found," says Wylde, "is that when employers don't have a sick leave policy, there's a reason, and it's not because they're nasty."

That's all bunk, say paid sick leave's advocates, taking special issue with the three-quarters-of-a-billion price tag opponents put on the policy. Those bill's opponents complain about added paperwork; Kevin Miller of the Institute for Women's Policy Research (IWPR) says that it amounts to just a little added math at payroll time. (Especially galling to those pushing for paid sick leave is that the sort of companies represented by the business groups most vocal in the debate -- Brookfield Properties of Zuccotti Park fame, the law firm Proskauer, and the Yankees -- give their employees paid sick days.) An IWPR report out soon finds that when it comes to New York City, the costs and benefits to employers would be a wash, at about 22 cents per employee per hour in both directions. Most fundamentally, argue sick leave advocates, the bill's opponents are simply being reflexively anti-regulation, worried less about the particulars than the fact that City Hall, once again, wants to tell them what to do. Such shallow thinking, the argument goes, threatens to put them on the wrong side of history, alongside those who thought that putting sprinklers in factories, establishing a minimum wage, or guaranteeing access for disabled people would destroy American business. And it puts them on the wrong side of women.

With one eye on Quinn, framing paid sick leave as a women's issue is a core strategy of the bill's proponents. There have been victories on that front. Gloria Steinem is a Quinn supporter, but has been leaning on the speaker to bring the sick leave bill up for a vote. Last week, Quinn won the tweeted endorsement of another iconic female New Yorker, Susan Sarandon. But after receiving an hour's worth of pro-sick leave tweets, the actress responded with a post saying she'd raise the issue with Quinn. "There are interesting stories about women at the top," says Ellen Bravo of Family Values @ Work, a network of groups pushing for paid sick leave and other workplace protections. "But we forget about women who aren't worried about having it all but losing it all."

For the moment opponents of city-wide paid sick leave legislation seem to be winning the argument -- at least where it counts, which is in the mind of Christine Quinn. This might be Michael Bloomberg's New York, but Quinn is a powerful figure in her own right. The 45-year-old came up as an advocate against anti-LGBT violence and a housing organizer, and, with Bloomberg's apparent blessing, she seems to be charting a steady course to the 2013 mayoral election. In her early days on the council she was a leader on the public health front as chair of the Health Committee. But the reality is that Quinn has tiptoed where the mayor has thudded. She's backed him on his smoking and calorie crackdowns, for example, but has more recently raised doubts that anyone accustomed to consuming large calories of soda is going to be dissuaded by smaller cup sizes. But the perhaps self-serving perception among some observers is that Quinn is a one-time radical whose cautious moves are simply calculations in the direction of Gracie Mansion. They want her to do more, to push more, to be ever more aggressive. Anything less is a disappointment.

As a practical matter, the City Council could route around Christine Quinn if it really wanted to. Bloomberg isn't the insurmountable obstacle; Quinn has been willing to organize attempts to override the mayor's veto in cases where a supposed public good would offset supposed private costs, such as a 2004 call for equal benefits for LGBT partners when it comes to city contracts and an effort two years later to require health coverage for some grocery workers. But Speaker Quinn ... Speaker Quinn is, it seems, a brick wall. Her colleagues are unwilling to buck her, calculating that it's much better to have Christine Quinn as friend than foe at this point. "I could call it up for a vote," says Councilmember Gale Brewer, the Upper West Side Democrat who is the bill's lead champion. "But then you might lose, and I'm more interested in actually getting a bill through." Instead, says Brewer, she'll keep tweaking the bill, trying to grow the coalition in favor of it. That coalition includes two of Quinn's likely opponents in the Democratic mayoral primary. Public Advocate Bill de Blasio and Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer are backing both the proposed soda ban and the paid sick leave bill.

Both sides in the sick leave debate seem to agree on one thing, at least.

"I think she feels very strongly that she wants to be a business mayor, but she has these liberal roots," says Sherri Leiwant of A Better Balance, a pro-leave New York City group. "I think she's a little torn."

The Partnership's Wylde agrees. "I think the speaker is torn. She understands that the Working Families Party, and many of the groups that she has a great relationship with and who support her, support this. I mean, no one wants to be against sick leave," she says with a laugh. "But the simple fact is that the city council's involvement has the potential to be hugely damaging." Wylde sighs. "It's a tough one."

Mike Bloomberg might not have had to care all that much what businesses thought of him. Christine Quinn doesn't have that luxury.

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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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