Chen: Paid sick leave is one public health crusade city should get behind


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We New Yorkers are a notoriously tough bunch, but a simple cold can deal a devastating blow -- if our bosses force us to choose between our health and our livelihoods.

For all of Mayor Michael Bloomberg's crusades to enhance public health, the city has repeatedly failed to enact a commonsense health protection for its most vulnerable workers: mandatory paid sick leave.

A broadly popular proposal to provide workers paid time off to tend to medical needs, for themselves or family, has for years stalled in the City Council. The measure now contains exemptions for some small businesses, and it bases leave time on the number of hours worked -- a reasonable way to expand benefits that middle-class professionals typically take for granted.

Yet growing support for the bill from community groups and council members has met virulent resistance from business lobbyists, along with Mayor Bloomberg and mayoral hopeful Christine Quinn, who cite cost concerns for employers. A City Council hearing on the issue is scheduled for Friday.

This gap in the safety net hurts an estimated 65 percent of working-poor New Yorkers. That in turn threatens everybody: It pressures restaurant workers to serve your salad with the sniffles and working parents to send wheezy kids to school, exposing classmates. Although federal law allows many workers unpaid leave time, a law that eliminates the financial penalty for taking sick days would make New York one of a handful of progressive cities offering this benefit -- though it's standard in many industrialized countries.

And, despite the grumbles of business owners, research shows that paid-leave policies generally reduce turnover and maintain productivity.

Paid sick time is also an economic justice issue, affecting single moms, parents caring for aging relatives and communities of color. More than 450,000 Latino workers today have to choose between their health or their paycheck when they fall ill.

A paid sick day policy is the least the city could provide for workers whose low wages mean they have a tough time even on their best days. Helping them stay healthy makes the whole city a more humane place, and that's a benefit for everyone.

Michelle Chen is a writer and editor based in Queens.


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