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

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.

Not all business owners are unsympathetic to the problem, either. “You don't want people too sick to serve,” Barbara Sibley, the owner of La Palapa restaurant in Manhattan's East Village, who's given her employees paid sick days for the twelve years she's been open, told AlterNet. “It's the culture, people just come in to work sick. It doesn't even occur to them that maybe they should not. Sometimes the new employees are surprised that I send them home when they're sick, they say 'Well what are you going to do?' and I say 'We'll figure it out. Hopefully everybody will just pull a little harder, and then you'll be well and when they're sick you'll help them out.'”

Putting the Pressure on Quinn

“We're here because it's a social justice issue,” Marjorie Hill told the crowd at City Hall. But social justice issues may turn out to be Christine Quinn's stumbling block on her way to the mayorship.

She managed to split the difference on the city's living wage bill, taking credit for its passage but watering it down to the point where it only covered a few hundred workers (and then throwing a very public tantrum when Bloomberg was mocked at the press conference announcing the bill's success). But with very prominent figures like Steinem publicly calling for the passage of paid sick days, she may not be able to do so again. Steinem, who introduced Quinn at a 500-person fundraiser last fall, wrote to the New York Times that her support was conditional on the paid sick days bill coming up for a vote in the City Council.

And as Quinn will no doubt make much of the ground she'd break as the city's first woman mayor, the formation of a “Women for Paid Sick Days” coalition specifically targeting her could be even more problematic. The coalition seems to say it's not enough for Quinn to simply be a woman: she has to take care of working women (and men), too.

Paid sick leave bills were introduced in the Council in 2009 and 2010, but Quinn claims to be concerned about their impact on small businesses. (The current bill exempts businesses with less than 5 employees, though it does include a requirement that those businesses not fire employees for needing sick time.) “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,” Quinn said in a statement this week.

Sibley, however, disagrees with this argument. “I have people who've been working for me since the day we opened. Some of them I've paid for months. And I'm still here, so it can be done. I think that it's important, you want people to care for the guests how can they care for the guests if they don't feel cared for?” she asked. “I realize that it's my responsibility, they're my responsibility to take care of.”

In San Francisco, which has had a paid sick leave ordinance on the books since 2007, a 2011 report found that two-thirds of employers now support the policy, and that it hasn't been a job-killer.

The rough economy simply isn't an excuse for the hundreds gathered at City Hall on Thursday. Castaneda declared that paid sick leave would provide, “real economic security for hundreds of thousands of women.”

“In the next few months we're going to be holding rallies and press conferences, organizing 500 prominent women leaders to join our call to Speaker Quinn to bring paid sick days to a vote on the floor of the city council,” Poo told the crowd. “We'll be using email and social media and good old fashioned dear neighbor letters to engage hundreds of thousands of our friends and neighbors.”

At some point, it looks as though Quinn may have to show that crowd which side she's on—Bloomberg's, or the workers.


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