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Why Everyone Should Celebrate New York City’s Paid Sick Law

Amy Traub

Come April 2014, New Yorkers will finally have the right to get sick. Thanks to a New York City Council vote last night overriding Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s veto, New York will become the largest city in the nation to guarantee paid sick days. It’s an important milestone, even for those of us already fortunate enough to get a paid day off when we fall ill.

It means that the sneezing, coughing restaurant worker preparing our food can no longer be told, “if you don’t come in today, don’t bother coming in tomorrow.”

It means that the mother of the kid with disturbing flu-like symptoms can afford to stay home and keep her child in bed, rather than spreading sickness to every other student in the classroom and cafeteria.

It means the “sick passenger” won’t have to make a choice between earning the paycheck he needs to pay rent or clutching the subway pole with a germy hand just before you do.

And it means that one million more people will enjoy what 80 percent of Americans agree is a basic workers’ right.

In practical terms, the new law means New York City employers with at least 20 employees must now give their workers the opportunity to earn a maximum of five paid sick days a year beginning in April 2014. Businesses with fewer than 20 employees can no longer summarily fire workers who are unable to come to work due to illness, a surprisingly common occurrence.

I’ve argued before that the bill that has now become law is disappointingly diluted, and that brute political force ultimately mattered far more for its passage than the pile of sober research and careful analysis that indicated the policy would pay off with benefits that far exceed the modest costs

But beyond the reach of the legislation itself, the new law is also significant for its defeat of the “business boogeyman” an all-too-common line of reasoning that insists any advance for workers, consumers, or the environment must always come at the cost of an overwhelming loss to jobs and economic growth.

When he vetoed paid sick days in the first place, Mayor Bloomberg argued: “The bill will have deleterious effects on businesses. . . Faced with this increase in costs, employers will seek to offset them in any number of ways, including reducing other benefits employees receive ... reducing the number of hours employees work and laying them off altogether. Employers may also become less willing to hire new employees, as this bill would make hiring them more expensive.”

Set aside the apparently hypocrisy of hearing this from a mayor who was quick to adopt a ban on large sodas and indoor smoking in restaurants and bars – measures which could also increase costs to business – in the name of improving public health. In glibly repeating the line that granting paid sick days will inherently entail a loss of jobs or some other benefit, Mayor Bloomberg ignored the concrete evidence of what actually happened in San Francisco, Washington DC, and other cities where paid sick days have been guaranteed in favor of a the “business boogeyman” mantra – the same tired arguments  used to fight economic progress for working people since the Fair Labor Standards Act was signed 75 years ago.

Today, the New York City Council moves on to a discussion of wage theft in the fast food industry, meanwhile the Washington DC City Council voted to require big box retailers to pay a living wage, and New York’s paid sick days victory gives momentum for other states and cities trying to enact similar worker protections. Every one of these efforts will undoubtedly face attacks from the “business boogeyman.” New York’s success on paid sick days shows that it can be defeated, and our experience will ultimately provide one more piece of evidence that the knee-jerk argument is false.