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What New York’s Partial Victory on Paid Sick Days Means

Amy Traub

The news broke last night: a deal to bring paid sick days to a vote in the New York City Council has been reached. 

As I noted in my recent testimony on the bill, paid sick time is far from a pie-in-the-sky idea. It is the law in 145 countries around the world as well as the state of Connecticut, and the cities of San Francisco, Washington D.C., Seattle, and Portland, Oregon. Based on how this policy has operated in practice, the evidence strongly suggests that this is a successful policy and that it does not harm employment or the growth of small businesses as opponents have argued. The majority of New Yorkers—and indeed the majority of Americans—believe that one shouldn't lose a day's pay (or their job itself) just because they get sick. Every working person should be guaranteed at least a few paid days off a year for illness.

My case was based on careful studies from McGill University, the Urban Institute, the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, the Community Service Society of New York, the Center for Economic and Policy Research, and the Drum Major Institute for Public Policy. But in the end, the facts weren’t what mattered.

What mattered was, as the New York Times wrote “a raw display of political muscle by a coalition of labor unions and liberal activists who overcame fierce objections from New York’s business-minded mayor, Michael R. Bloomberg, and his allies in the corporate world.”

In other words, this is a municipal election year, the City Council Speaker who had previously blocked a vote is now running for mayor and saw the issue forced onto the political agenda as the result of years of tireless organizing and advocacy, and she is now reportedly letting a much-weakened bill to the floor for a democratic vote by the City Council. As the result of repeated compromises, Public Advocate Bill DeBlasio (himself a mayoral candidate with an interest in minimizing his opponent’s achievement) points out that thousands of New York workers will still lack sick leave even after the law is in place.

Let’s consider what it took to get to this point. Many media accounts observe that the bill has been before the Council for three years—yet I started working on the issue five years ago, when I helped to bring Sarah Flocks of Young Workers United,  a key grassroots group that helped to win paid sick days in San Francisco, to New York to speak about her success. At that point bill sponsor Gail Brewer and local organizations like A Better Balance and the New York Paid Leave Coalition  had already been working to bring paid sick days to New York City for years. It took the prospect of a major, potentially realigning city election to bring a policy supported from the start by a majority of New Yorkers (and a strong majority of City Council members) to the floor for a vote.

The battle over paid sick days in New York illustrates both the accomplishments and the limits of our troubled democracy: despite fierce opposition from wealthy and powerful business interests, policies that primarily benefit the less empowered segments of our society—disproportionately female, low-wage workers of color who lack even a single paid day off work to care of themselves or a sick loved one—can nevertheless become law. So democracy works and elections do promote accountability! And yet, it should not have taken so long or required so many compromises on the basic principal—everybody gets sick, so every working person should have the opportunity to earn at least a few paid sick days a year—to make this popular, proven policy a reality.

To extend the metaphor of Demos’ recent paper on the dominance of politics by business: the game is not entirely rigged. We can—and did—win a round in the paid sick days fight. But the fact that the deck is stacked against us makes even our victories harder to win and more partial than they should be.