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Will New York City Mayoral Front-Runner Kill Paid Sick Leave Again?

With a changed economy, targeted concessions and an approaching primary, progressives mount a renewed push for a citywide law.

Photo Credit: Thomas Good / NLN


The following article first appeared at Working In These Times, the labor blog of In These Times magazine. For more news and analysis like this, sign up to receive  In These Times weekly updates.

Amid a deluge of right-wing state and local laws, paid sick leave has offered a rare bright spot for progressives. Its progress hasn’t been steady, but it hasn’t been slow. Five years after San Francisco became the first U.S. city to mandate that employers provide paid sick leave to employees, similar bills have been debated or passed  across the United States.  

Washington, DC and Milwaukee followed San Francisco in 2008; Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker signed a law overriding the Milwaukee bill last year.  Last year, Seattle passed a citywide law, Denver voters defeated one, and Connecticut passed the first statewide paid sick leave law. Philadelphia’s mayor vetoed a broad mandate but allowed one only covering city contractors and subsidy recipients to become law. Governor Deval Patrick backs a statewide bill in Massachusetts. And in New York City, activists are mounting a renewed push following their defeat in 2010.  Now, as then, the legislation’s fate will land in the hands of New York City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, a former activist turned business-friendly Bloomberg ally and potential future mayor.

“People on the left are looking for things that are replicable, winnable, and will improve people’s lives,” says Working Families Party Executive Director Dan Cantor. Research shows that  at least 40 million U.S. workers are employed in positions where they will never be eligible for paid sick leave, and that such workers are  more likely to go to work sick, and to end up in the emergency room.

As David Moberg  noted for In These Times last year, paid sick leave laws are broadly popular. But conservative groups, in New York and around the country, have consistently opposed such laws.

Kia Murrell, the main lobbyist against the policy for the Connecticut Business and Industry Alliance,  said last year that if there was a problem of sick workers infecting customers, "we would all be sick all the time," and that low-wage workers are too quick to call in sick: "A high-powered executive, if they get a cold, is more likely to tough it out."  In a 2010 interview with  Bloomberg Business Week, Partnership for New York City CEO Kathryn Wylde acknowledged the appeal of paid sick leave but said the move to "undertake a social justice agenda" and "ideologically impose" the law was a mistake.

But in the three years after San Francisco passed its own law, the Drum Major Institute  found that the county's job growth and business growth beat five surrounding counties.  An Economic Opportunity Institute  survey last year showed that two-thirds support for the measure among employers. Whether genuinely converted or conceding to political reality, the Executive Director of the city's Golden Gate Restaurant Association has  recanted his organization's opposition.

In New York City, the push for paid sick leave goes back years; in 2009, 700 people marched across the Brooklyn Bridge to City Hall in Manhattan in support of the measure. By all accounts, advocates had majority support on City Council in 2010, and a majority large enough to override a promised veto by Mayor Michael Bloomberg. But they never got the chance, because Quinn exercised her discretion as Council Speaker to  prevent the bill from coming up for a vote.  

"I support the goal of expanding benefits to workers, Quinn told the  New York Daily News, "[but] I have to help small businesses stay alive in a fragile economy."

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