09/24/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

City Council and Bloomberg Need to Act Now to Avoid a Public Health Crisis

The City Council took an important step last Thursday to avert a potential health crisis in New York City. A bill was introduced by council member Gale Brewer that would guarantee every worker in the city -- full-time, part-time, or temporary -- paid sick days. Now that the bill has been introduced, it needs to be passed--quickly and without any substantial changes that would weaken the bill's effectiveness.

When swine flu emerged earlier this year, President Obama gave some common-sense advice, "Stay home from work if you're sick." The problem is, about a million workers in the city must choose between their health and employment because they don't get paid sick days. The burden falls most heavily on low-wage workers living paycheck-to-paycheck who cannot afford to lose even a single day's pay. Most of the city's 200,000 restaurant workers are in this position. They must go to work sick and risk infecting others or face the economic consequences of missing work.

All this has the potential for a public health crisis when swine flu makes its expected comeback this fall. Nowhere in America is the threat of contagion more acute. Millions of New Yorkers travel to work on crowded subways and buses and jostle for space on congested sidewalks in the busiest business districts in the country. Plus, New York City continues to be a major tourist destination for both domestic and international travelers, meaning that contagious disease could be easily brought into the city from elsewhere.

Although the new bill has the support of a broad coalition and 36 members of the City Council, the public is still waiting for a strong endorsement from Mayor Bloomberg. At the Working Families Party mayoral forum last month, the Mayor offered qualified support, but expressed concern about the impact on small businesses. The Council's bill now addresses that concern: employees at companies that have fewer than ten workers have the opportunity to earn five paid sick days a year, compared with nine days for larger businesses. Any more concessions would unnecessarily undermine the bill's effectiveness.

After all, are those who work in small businesses less likely to become sick or less likely to infect their co-workers or customers if they do become sick? Of course not. All workers deserve paid sick days, no matter how big or small the business they work for.

Businesses in New York should have little to worry about with an earned paid sick day law. Guaranteeing paid sick time is a policy with a proven track record, especially in San Francisco, where 100,000 working people gained the right to get sick in 2007. Employment in San Francisco did not suffer after the law was passed. In fact, the hospitality and restaurant industries, where the largest number of employees received the benefit for the first time, continued to see strong job growth. Researchers have found that paid sick days produce a net gain of $12.5 million annually in San Francisco by decreasing employee turnover, improving productivity, and reducing the spread of illness.

The message for our city is clear: healthy workers and healthy businesses can coexist. Let's pass an earned paid sick leave law as soon as possible. The city's health is on the line.