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'When Workers Work Sick, It's Unhealthy for All of Us': New York's Battle for Paid Sick Leave

The U.S. is the only rich country in the world that fails to guarantee workers some form of paid sick leave.
 
 
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At 3am on a November day last year, Eudocio Alvarado, a 58-year-old worker from Mexico, was cleaning the bar in the Brooklyn restaurant where he worked when a piece of heavy furniture fell on his left foot. After a visit to the ER, Alvarado had to call his boss to request sick leave. He was granted two days’ leave, unpaid.

Two days later, Alvarado’s injured foot had grown worse and his doctors told him he would need surgery. When he called his boss from the hospital, he was told to come to work the next day. “If you don’t go to work, you’re going to lose your job,” Alvarado’s boss told him. Unable to go to work the next day, Alvarado lost his job.

Now Alvarado works 81 hours a week at a fresh food market, earning a weekly wage of $380. Tuesdays are his only days off, and he uses them to go to a physical therapist in Coney Island for his recovering foot. He still does not have paid sick leave, and with the wages he makes, he cannot afford to take any time off — not when he’s sick, and not for Christmas, Thanksgiving or any other holiday.

Like Alvarado, Celina Alvarez, an immigrant chef from Mexico, lost her job at a restaurant in Queens after she was hospitalized for four days for a heart problem. Sitting in the Queens office of Make the Road, a non-profit labor advocacy organization, she said what she experienced was not uncommon among workers she knew. For instance, a friend’s hand became disfigured after an accident with hot liquid at work, and she had to continue working despite the injury.

Alvarado and Alvarez are two of the estimated 1.4 to 1.6 million working New Yorkers who have no paid leave whatsoever, for sickness or vacation. Workers who are most in need of paid sick leave are low-wage workers, women and people of color, according to Joe Dinkin of the Working Families Party New York, a paid sick leave (PSL) legislation supporter. A CommunityService Society  report published last year shows that 64% of low-income workers in New York do not have a single day of PSL, compared to 35% of higher-income workers. Among those lower-income workers, mothers (70%), who often must take care of sick children, and Latinos (76%) were found to be more likely to lack PSL.

This January, the New York City Paid Sick Time Bill (PSTA) was introduced to the city council to help New York workers without PSL benefits. The bill is now waiting for Council Speaker Christine Quinn’s approval to be brought to a vote.

Proponents of the bill argue that it would protect workers’ rights and bolster public health in New York. Income inequality  is greater in New York than in any other large metropolitan area in the country. The gap between the rich and the poor is even wider when you factor in benefits like PSL. As Vicki Shabo of the National Partnership for Women and Family writes, “For families already on the brink of poverty, a few paid sick days can have devastating consequences.” Indeed, the jobs of low-wage workers like Alvarado and Alvarez are often on the line when they get sick or injured. PSL legislation could provide a safety net for workers in poverty or near-poverty and protect them from falling further into financial crisis because of an accident or a sick child.

PSL legislation makes sense with regard to public health as well. According to a survey commissioned by Community Service Society, a New York-based public policy institute, more than half of workers who handle food and 43% of workers in close contact with children or the elderly do not have PSL benefits. PSL legislation would encourage sick workers to stay home and prevent them from transmitting contagious disease to their coworkers and customers. Additionally,  PSL legislation could reduce healthcare costs and is supported by healthcare professionals.

 
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