New Yorkers Say No To Flu in the Workplace

New York looks to be the latest city to adopt a sick leave law.

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In this Friday, Jan. 18 2013 photo, Emilio Palaguachi, center, speaks during a rally at NewYork's City Hall to call for immediate action on paidsick days legislation in light of the continued spread of the flu. An unusually early and vigorous flu season is drawing attention to the cause that has both scored victories and hit roadblocks in recent years: mandatory paidsickleave.

After three years of delay and obstruction, lawmakers in New York City Thursday finally crafted a deal that will require Big Apple businesses to provide their workers with paid sick days. The final hurdle to a deal—City Council speaker and mayoral hopeful Christine Quinn—finally succumbed to extensive pressure and will bring the measure to a vote. (Mayor Michael Bloomberg is opposed to the bill, but the council has enough votes to override his veto.)

Currently, the United States is the only developed country in the world that doesn't mandate some sort of paid leave for workers to use when they are sick or to care for an ill family member; 145 other countries have paid sick leave laws. The Family and Medical Leave Act, signed into law by President Bill Clinton in 1993, requires that workers be provided with unpaid leave to recover from a serious illness or look after a sick relative. At the time it was a big step forward for the country, but is now woefully inadequate.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the economy.]

Local governments across the country, though, have taken matters into their own hands. San Francisco, Portland, Seattle, and Washington, D.C., all have paid sick leave requirements. In 2011, Connecticut became the first state to adopt a paid sick leave law. Milwaukee also approved a law, but had it overturned thanks to a concerted effort by Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and his fellow Republicans in the state legislature (for whom local control evidently only goes so far). Philadelphia's city council also approved a sick leave law recently, but Mayor Michael Nutter is expected to veto it, just as he did when the council tried to adopt the bill two years ago.

Under the proposed New York law, businesses with 15 or more employees must provide workers with five paid sick days annually (the law would go into effect in spring 2014, and initially only applies to businesses with 20 employees or more). The common complaint from opponents of paid sick leave requirements is that they constitute an undue burden on businesses and the economy.

But the experience of the few cities that have tried such a mandate shows the exact opposite. A study by the Drum Major Institute found that San Francisco actually experienced better job growth, in businesses large and small, than neighboring counties after it required paid sick leave. Early evaluations of Connecticut's law show similar results. The Economic Policy Institute found that the cost to businesses in New York City of a paid sick leave law would be negligible.

[See a collection of political cartoons on health care.]

And it makes sense that providing paid sick leave benefits employers as much as employees. When workers are forced to take unpaid time off—or worry about losing their job—they are more likely to come into work sick, infecting others and driving down productivity. In fact, the U.S. loses an estimated $160 billion annually due to sick workers spreading their illnesses around the workplace.

Paid sick leave is also an important facet of keeping the public at-large healthy. For example, nearly 80 percent of food workers and 90 percent of restaurant workers don't have paid sick leave; they therefore come into work sick, sneezing and coughing into the food that we all consume. The Centers for Disease Control also recommends that workers stay home when ill in order to prevent more severe flu outbreaks, but of course, that's not an option for workers who have no paid sick leave. In 2009, according to one study, lack of paid sick leave contributed to seven million additional cases of H1N1 flu and 1,500 additional deaths.

Earlier this week, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., called for a federal paid sick leave law. Since the odds of that happening anytime soon are exceedingly low, cities and states will have to take the lead. It's good to see the Big Apple finally stepping up.

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