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David Jones

David Jones

Posted: September 2, 2009 05:41 PM

Keep Sick Workers Home for All Our Sakes

Some years ago, the Community Service Society (CSS) issued a report, Shortchanging Security, on the working conditions for non-unionized security guards in New York City. We found that working conditions were pretty bleak; 63,000 mostly Black and Latino men got around $10.00 an hour, with no benefits, no vacation days, and, specific to my blog today, no paid sick days.

I got to meet with nearly a dozen of the 75 security guards who work at the Empire State Building. We talked about their working conditions and low pay. One of the things that struck me then and now, as we approach another anniversary of 9/11, is that these are the very first responders that we would have to rely on in event of another attack, or a high rise fire, or a sudden heart attack, or even being stuck in an elevator. With those potential responsibilities, not one of them was receiving paid sick days. It means that all too often they had to go to work even when they were very sick. Because if you call in sick, you lose a day's pay and you can legitimately be concerned with losing your job. All I could imagine was being stuck in an elevator in the Empire State Building, depending upon a security guard, possibly very ill, underpaid, and not well trained to handle an emergency.

It's not only security guards who don't get paid sick leave. An estimated 1 million to 1.5 million New York City workers lack paid sick leave. They are overwhelmingly low-wage workers of color in service industries, particularly security guards, restaurant workers, clerks in stores, and child care workers.

That's why when we were approached a few weeks ago to help promote the passage of a City Council bill, Intro 1059, "Provision of Paid Sick Time Earned by Employees," which would mandate paid sick leave for all New York City workers, it took all of 60 seconds for us to sign up. The bill was introduced by Council Member Gale Brewer and Public Advocate Betsy Gotbaum and co-sponsored by 36 members of the City Council. This legislation is precisely aligned to CSS's mission and history of assisting the poor, particularly the working poor, to make it in the City of New York. Paid sick leave represents one of the most basic and cost effective benefits imaginable.

Of course, the timing couldn't seem to be worse. Unemployment has skyrocketed in the city, very likely to reach 10 percent. The number of people unemployed (not including those who've just given up looking for work) is over 400,000. Employers are looking for some improvement in profits, not new and costly employee mandates. Interestingly enough, this turns out to be the perfect time, both from the perspective of the employees, employers and, perhaps most significantly, the general public, to support the measure. For employers at least this turns out to be a very low cost benefit and may in fact save money.

A number of localities - San Francisco, Washington, D.C., and Milwaukee - have already passed a paid sick leave law and the early indications are it doesn't do any financial harm to businesses large or small. That's because most people don't make use of the benefit unless they or their children are really sick. It also seems to be understood by employers that they don't want workers coming in sick, particularly with infectious diseases that can spread and get their staff or customers sick.

It's this last issue that makes this bill critical for New York City. No one who is even half awake cannot be aware that the Swine Flu Pandemic is projected to hit the U.S. hard in the coming months. According to the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, as much as half of the population of the U.S. is expected to be infected (some 150 million people) and as many as 90,000 deaths are projected.

Transmission of the virus is a New York City nightmare - sneezing, contaminated food, door knobs, subway poles, you name it, are all prime vectors. Every mayor, including Mayor Bloomberg, is saying if you or your child is sick - stay home! In New York City, of course, for the million or more workers without sick leave, that's often not an option if they want to pay the rent.

CSS will soon be releasing its latest survey of low-income New Yorkers, "The Unheard Third," based on a July telephone survey conducted with over a thousand respondents. One of the more sobering findings is the extraordinarily high number of workers without sick leave who go to work ill rather than risk losing a day's pay or their jobs.

If ever there was a time to pass a paid sick leave bill for the city, this is it.