NEW YORK — When Juana Alvarez’s 14-year-old daughter contracted a blood infection five years ago, Alvarez took her daughter to the hospital, leaving her newborn baby at home with her husband, Abel. Abel took two days off from his pizzeria job to stay home with the baby, a decision that ended up costing him his job: His employer was one of many around the country that deny sick days to their employees.
Abel now works at another pizzeria that also does not offer paid sick days — but after years of campaigning on the part of workers and activists, that is set to change. On Friday, Alvarez joined dozens on the steps of City Hall to cheer on Christine Quinn, speaker of the City Council, as she announced that lawmakers, liberal activists and labor and business leaders in New York have reached a deal on a bill that will require all businesses in New York City to let workers take sick days. Advocates are saying the measure could have reverberations around the nation, as other communities are inspired to enact similar changes.
“What it shows to workers is that, in the end, it’s people just like you who can make a difference,” said Ellen Bravo, the director of Family Values @ Work, a network of coalitions striving for paid sick days and paid family leave in 20 states.
Referring to the bill’s broad backing by union leaders and nonunion workers, activists, small-business owners and celebrity supporters like Gloria Steinem, Bravo added, “The change we need is change we can win when we stick together.”
Starting in April 2014, New York will require business with 20 or more employees to provide five paid sick days to their workers, and business that don’t reach the size limit will be required to offer unpaid sick leave. On October 1, 2015, the list of employers required to grant paid sick days will expand to include those with 15 or more workers. Although Mayor Bloomberg is expected to veto the bill, the proposal has enough support in the council to become law.
The New York City deal comes on the heels of similar bills in Portland, Ore., and Philadelphia, Penn., where the city councils approved a paid sick leave proposal earlier this month. Lawmakers in Massachusetts and Vermont are also considering versions of the legislation, and advocates are hopeful that the New York announcement could galvanize workers in the fight for paid sick leave nationwide.
For years, Quinn, the frontrunner in New York’s mayoral race, refused to bring the paid sick leave bill to a vote, but her resistance became a liability in her electoral bid, activists and observers say.
Bravo cited Gloria Steinem’s threat to withdraw her endorsement of Quinn as a key factor in Quinn’s reversal. She also mentioned the support of small-business owners, which helped undercut the pro-business arguments of large corporations.
Quinn, for her part, insisted she always liked the bill. “The question was never a question of ‘if,’ only a question of ‘when’ and ‘how’,” she said at City hall.
After years of discussion, she said, businesses and workers had finally arrived at “a good, strong, and sensible piece of legislation that recognizes the needs of everyday New Yorkers and the realities that our struggling small businesses face.”
Hector Figueroa, president of 32BJ SEIU, the nation’s largest property-services union, was among several leaders at City Hall who portrayed the bill as an important signal to legislators around the country. “We are telling not only New York but the nation that the time is now to take care of our workers and to help working people,” he said.
In an interview with The Huffington Post, Hilary Klein, the director of strategic campaigns for Make The Road New York, one of the main advocacy organizations behind the push for the legislation, argued that the victory reflected a “rising tide of support for workers’ rights and economic justice in general.”
She cited the Occupy movement, the growing number of organizing efforts by fast-food and retail workers, and President Obama’s inaugural address, in which he called on Congress to raise the federal minimum wage from $7.25 to $9.00 an hour.
Marianne Bellesorte, leader of the Philadelphia Healthy Families and Workplaces Coalition, a prominent backer of the paid sick leave bill in Philadelphia’s city council, said she thinks the news from New York could help persuade Philadelphia Mayor Nutter to sign the legislation.
Back in 2011, Nutter vetoed an earlier version of the bill. Since then, support for the measure has grown considerably. Bellesorte described New York’s announcement as evidence of an important shift in momentum.
“We’re very excited about what’s been happening in New York,” she said. “We hope that Mayor Nutter can really take the lead on earned sick days here Philadelphia.”
Klein said she hopes this latest milestone will inspire other workers to join the movement for paid sick leave around the country. “Ideally, it gets to the point where it becomes national legislation,” she said.
Alvarez hopes so, too. “I have a lot of family members in Los Angeles, Minnesota, Las Vegas,” she said in Spanish, “and really, I would love for them to have this protection as well.”