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Which Side Are You On? Activists Launch "Women for Paid Sick Days" Campaign to Press Mayoral Candidate Christine Quinn

Prominent women leaders are calling on Quinn to allow a vote on paid sick days legislation, but will she go against the wishes of her mentor, Mayor Bloomberg?

Christine Quinn, the Speaker of New York's City Council, wants to be the city's first woman mayor. (The first openly gay mayor, too.) To do so, she's going to have to walk a careful line between the business community that supports her mentor, Mayor Michael Bloomberg, and the city's labor and community progressive groups that want her to live up to their standards as a progressive and to take care of the city's workers.

Quinn's largely seen as the only thing that stands in the way of the Paid Sick Time Act, which would require most businesses with five or more employees to provide five paid sick days per year. (Billionaire Mayor Bloomberg, unsurprisingly, doesn't like the bill.) 37 of the 51 city council members are co-sponsors of the bill, more than enough for them to pass the measure over Bloomberg's veto, so Quinn's refusal to bring the bill up for a floor vote is the only holdup.

And now she's the target of a campaign led by the kind of people whose support she'll want as she moves forward with her mayoral run: Gloria Steinem and 200 other prominent women leaders, who gathered in the scorching heat at noon Thursday on the steps of City Hall to call for Quinn to stop stalling the bill.

The day's weather seemed designed to underscore the need for the bill, as retail and restaurant workers, union members and leaders, and activists of all stripes stood drenched in sweat, demanding that the city's most powerful woman show some concern for their health. A security guard urged speakers to hurry up, as two people had already gotten sick from the heat.

Women Working Sick

“Nearly 1 million New Yorkers don't get paid sick days—most are women working in low-wage service jobs like waitresses, retail clerks, day care providers and home care workers,” Maria Castaneda, Secretary-Treasurer of 1199 SEIU-UHE told the crowd. “For those women, unexpected illness or a child's doctor visit can cost a day's pay or even their jobs.”

According to a report by the Community Service Society, more than half of workers who handle food as part of their jobs, and 43 percent of those in close contact with children or the elderly don't get paid sick leave, meaning that when they work sick, they put others at risk as well. Marjorie Hill, CEO of the Gay Men's Health Crisis, pointed out that people with HIV are at increased risk of contracting illness from those around them, and are more likely to face serious consequences as a result, making paid sick days a priority for her organization, and a public health issue that should be of concern to all.

Ai Elo, a restaurant worker with the Restaurant Opportunities Center, works to support her two younger siblings, of whom she has primary custody. She pulled extra shifts to make enough money, but soon began to have knee and back problems. “My knees got so bad that I collapsed at work one day while serving a customer. Even then, my boss forbade me from going home until the end of my shift,” she said. “But as many women workers know, whether they are mothers or like me whether it's because they have primary custody over siblings or other relatives, putting your own health at risk is one thing but putting the health of loved ones at risk is a different story.” When a family emergency came up, Elo had to choose family over her job and stayed home, knowing it would cost her.

And yet paid sick days would actually save money for the city. The Institute for Women's Policy Research estimates that workers without paid leave don't see doctors as quickly as they should and wind up more dependent on emergency rooms. If New York City workers got paid sick days, they estimate, nearly 50,000 emergency room visits would be prevented, reducing health care costs by nearly $40 million.