Americans have no right to paid sick leave. If your employer doesn’t choose to provide it as a benefit, you can take unpaid sick leave or you can work sick. “Sick leave” applies both to a worker and to her family, so if it’s your baby who is sick and you need time off to care for him, the same rules apply — no pay for the day, and you risk retaliation by your boss if the company doesn’t like it.
That is going to change for New Yorkers.
Beginning April 1, 2014, everyone who works in New York City for an employer with 20 or more employees will have the right to five paid sick days a year. Starting October 15 the minimum will drop to 15 workers. People who work for even smaller employers will be entitled to unpaid sick leave. Even babysitters and other domestic workers will be covered.
It’s hard to believe that it isn’t a basic human right to stay home or get treatment when you are sick, or when a family member is sick and needs your care. Before President Clinton signed the Family and Medical Leave Act in 1993, you couldn’t even take unpaid sick leave. If you did, your boss was free to fire you. It didn’t even matter whether you were healthy enough to choose to go to work. Appendix burst? It’s your choice — keep working, or go to the hospital and lose your job.
Now most Americans can take up to 12 weeks of unpaid sick time for themselves or to care for a family member. I say most because the Family Medical Leave Act doesn’t apply to employers with fewer than 50 workers.
So you can see what a big step New York’s five paid days are. It may seem paltry at first, but that is five more days of pay than other Americans can get — and Americans who work for smaller employers can’t take any sick time at all, paid or not, without fear of employer retaliation.
New York City’s Council passed the measure 45-3, with a large enough majority to overcome Mayor Bloomberg’s veto. Council Speaker Christine Quinn explained that “sick time can be used for an employee’s physical or mental illness[,] injury or medical care and for the same purposes when caring for a spouse, domestic partner, child or parent.”
That’s funny to those of us who have been interested in the battle for paid sick leave in New York as it raged back and forth for the last four years, because Speaker Quinn opposed the law at every turn. Here she is just a few months ago: ”With the current state of the economy and so many businesses struggling to stay alive, I do not believe it would be wise to implement this policy, in this way, at this time.”
The state of the economy isn’t that different than it was in February, but one thing has heated up: mayoral campaign season in the Big Apple. Suddenly Quinn has remembered that she is supposed to be a Democrat.
Quinn wasn’t alone in opposing paid sick leave, she was just playing for the wrong team. Mayor Bloomberg led the chorus of business people howling that this would put them out of business. Remember that we’re talking about just five days of pay per worker per year. Compare that to the two hours every single work day that employees may spend doing personal stuff on the web.
Insomnia, by some estimates, costs an average of 11 days per worker in lost productivity. Employers are already paying for that, and by my math it’s more than twice what New York companies will have to start paying to help their workers stay healthy and care for their families.
And what might cause insomnia? Maybe having a sick child but being too scared of losing your job to stay home and take him to the doctor? By taking away what could be a major source of worry, New York City may be helping its workers sleep and actually saving their employers money by increasing their productivity.
Paid sick leave may be coming soon to a workplace near you. National Public Radio reports that “similar measures have been approved in San Francisco and Seattle, others are pending in Maryland, Vermont, Oregon, and Washington state.”
Americans from across the country need to let the federal government know that we shouldn’t have to fight this out city by city or state by state. We shouldn’t have to fight it out at all, but since we have to, let’s do this thing at the federal level. Sign our petition to Congress to enact paid family and medical leave for everyone working in the U.S.
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