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Legislation to mandate paid sick time for workers

by MICHAEL BARBARO New York Times News Service on March 29, 2013 10:50 AM

NEW YORK — New York City is poised to mandate that thousands of companies provide paid time off for sick employees, bolstering a national movement that has been resisted by wary business leaders.

A legislative compromise reached Thursday night represents a raw display of political muscle by a coalition of labor unions and liberal activists who overcame fierce objections from New York’s business-minded mayor, Michael R. Bloomberg, and his allies in the corporate world.

The deal required a high-profile concession from a leading candidate to succeed Bloomberg, Christine C. Quinn, the City Council speaker, who had single-handedly blocked action on the sick-leave issue for three years, arguing that it would inflict damage on the city’s fragile economy.

The legislation would eventually force companies with at least 15 employees to give full-time workers five compensated days off a year when they are ill, a requirement that advocates said would allow much of the city’s labor force to stay home from work without fear of losing a day’s wage — or worse, a job. The advocates said the legislation would provide paid sick leave for 1 million New Yorkers who do not have such benefits.

But to the disappointment of those who pushed for a more sweeping version of the legislation, New York City’s mandate would not take effect until next spring, and for the first 18 months, it would apply only to businesses with 20 or more employees, according to people involved in the negotiations.

The measure is subject to a vote by the City Council. Bloomberg is expected to veto the measure, but there is enough support on the Council to override his veto.

New York’s measure would be less stringent than similar requirements in Portland, Ore., San Francisco, Seattle and Washington, which cover either all companies or those with five or more workers.

In a provision designed to placate the city’s corporate leaders, the sick-leave requirement would not be implemented next year should the city’s economy significantly erode, as measured by a financial index kept by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.

Still, advocates argued that its passage would represent a significant symbolic victory because of New York’s vast size and its role at times as a bellwether for public policy around the country.

“It’s not perfect,” said Sherry Leiwant, co-president of A Better Balance, an advocacy group involved in the negotiations. “But it’s very important to get this done in New York.”

New York’s relative slowness to tackle the issue of mandatory sick-leave benefits has become a source of embarrassment for the city’s liberal leaders, who directed their frustration at Quinn, a Democrat and longtime ally of Bloomberg who has aggressively courted the business community in her run for mayor.

Until a few weeks ago, Quinn had firmly resisted calls for mandated paid sick-leave legislation, using her power as speaker to block fellow lawmakers from voting on a bill proposed by Councilwoman Gale A. Brewer, of Manhattan, despite the bill’s widespread support.

But Quinn and her aides became unsettled by the steady drumbeat of news conferences calling on her to permit a vote, and emotional appeals from unions, elected officials and activists including feminist Gloria Steinem.

The outcry, which coincided with the official declaration of Quinn’s mayoral campaign, quickly took center stage in the mayor’s race, spilling out into contentious candidate forums and turning into an emblem of Quinn’s complicated relationship with left-leaning Democrats.

In one particularly potent tactic, advocates persuaded the usually timid members of the Council to try to circumvent Quinn and force a vote on a version of the bill that was unacceptable to her, a maneuver never tried during her tenure as speaker.

Soon after it became clear that she might face a revolt in the City Council, Quinn sought to end the controversy — and cast off a political liability — by jump-starting negotiations, working with a local building service workers’ union with whom she has a close relationship.

The two sides started far apart: Quinn proposed a rule that would apply to companies with 50 or more workers; advocates wanted a threshold of five.

Under the deal, companies exempt from the requirement because of their low number of employees would have to offer workers five days of unpaid sick leave annually.

Whether the sick leave is paid or unpaid, companies will be legally forbidden from firing workers for taking such time off.

Quinn, who insisted on the strong exemptions for smaller companies, said the compromise bill struck a balance between the needs of workers and their employers.

“We have 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,” Quinn said in a statement.

As the marathon talks drew to a close on Thursday night, advocates said that, compromises aside, they believed New York had given new momentum to a broader social cause.

“This is a sweet victory,” said Bill Lipton, state director of the Working Families Party, which has overseen the advocates’ day-to-day effort to win passage of the measure. “It provides economic security for New Yorkers, and a shot in the arm for the paid sick days movement across the country.”

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March 29, 2013 10:49 AM
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