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Paid Sick Days in New York: A Burning Issue

July 27, 2012

by Martha Baker

Record high temperatures and a blistering sun were no deterrent to hundreds of New York women as we gathered on the steps of City Hall last week to launch the Women for Paid Sick Days initiative. Key women leaders from labor, community, public health and faith groups joined elected officials and women workers to call for City Council Speaker Christine Quinn to bring the paid sick days bill to a vote.

Rev. Jennifer Kottler began the program addressing the moral imperative for passing the paid sick days bill.  Three co-chairs of the Women for Paid Sick Days Task Force — Dr. Marjorie Hill, CEO of Gay Men’s Health Crisis; Ai-jen Poo, Director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, and Maria Castaneda, Secretary-Treasurer of 1199 SEIU-UHE – added the public health and economic reasons.

Marjorie Hill described the economic impact of a lack of paid sick days on people living with or at risk for HIV/AIDS. “A million workers in New York City lack paid sick days, and the economic security that comes with it,” she noted. “The majority are women, many of whom live at or below the poverty line. Many are immigrants. These women do not have lobbyists or connections at City Hall. For these workers, every sickness, every emergency for their children, could mean losing pay or even losing their jobs. Imagine that for a moment.”

Ai-jen Poo talked about the caregivers for our most vulnerable loved ones and the dangers of working sick, both to the workers and those they care for.  As Maria Castaneda reminded the crowd, “As women are the primary caregivers for young children and elderly parents, the lack of sick days hits them even harder.  According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, half of women miss work when their child is sick – and half of them lose their pay.”

Rhonda Nelson from UFCW Local 1500 and Chair of their International Women’s Network thanked everyone for together moving the bill from dream to reality. “Speaker Quinn has been a champion to women who work in supermarkets,” she said. “We ask her to continue the fight for fairness…for thousands of other workers…and bring paid sick days legislation to a fair vote.”

Opponents of allowing workers to earn paid sick days often claim to speak for small businesses. Barbara Sibley, owner of La Palapa Restaurant, reminded us of the many business owners who are part of our coalition precisely because they are concerned about maintaining a healthy, productive and stable workforce and healthy patrons.  “You don’t want people too sick to serve,” she said.

Unfortunately, without a law, not all employers will follow Barbara Sibley’s lead. Ai Elo, a member of the Restaurant Opportunities Center of New York, shared her story. Despite collapsing on the job, she was not allowed to go home from work, and her condition worsened.  As the primary custodian for her two younger siblings, however, Ai had to make a different decision when one of them fell ill. “Putting your own health at risk is one thing,” she said, “but putting the health of loved ones at risk is a different story.” She lost her job as a result.

The crowd roared its support for a number of Councilwomen who were in attendance, led by co-sponsors of the legislation, Councilwoman Gale Brewer and Councilwoman Julissa Ferreras.  Gale Brewer acknowledged the tremendous effort of women community leaders who have taken this issue back to their respective organizations.

The heat on City Hall continued with a barrage of press attention.  The NY Times posted its first ever piece on the NYC campaign, focusing on Gloria Steinem’s public statement that her support for the Speaker’s mayoral ambition is contingent on the paid sick days bill coming to a vote.  As the initial signer of the Women’s Call and one of the six co-chairs of the Women for Paid Sick Days Task Force, pressure from Gloria Steinem is a reminder that the person running to be the first woman and openly gay mayor of NYC shouldn’t take women’s votes for granted.

Co-Chair Ana Maria Archila, Co-Executive Director of Make the Road NY and a new mom, appeared with Councilwoman Gale Brewer that night on NY1, our local news and politics channel.  Stories popped up on Crain’s Insider, Alternet, Wall Street Journal, Daily Kos, City & State, The Atlantic, Bloomberg BusinessWeek and more.  The Daily News carried an op-ed by Ai-jen Poo and Shelby Knox, and Chris Hayes on MSNBC gave a shout out to the campaign.

One of the week’s most powerful moments was an exchange over Twitter with Susan Sarandon, in which the actress was convinced to come out in support for paid sick days.  After the actress, known for her social justice work, tweeted that Chris Quinn is “the real deal,” activists from New York and around the country fired back with facts about Speaker Quinn’s record on paid sick days, in tweets such as: “Thelma & Louise deserved #paidsickdays. @SusanSarandon, pls help get @ChrisCQuinn to support them.” To her credit, Susan Sarandon thanked those who tweeted, saying she’d looked into it – which indeed she did.

In a later Tweet, Sarandon concluded, “SF study says #paidsickdays good for business, aren’t abused by workers. Hope it will be put to a vote. Will talk to Cty Council Spkr.”

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