January 21, 2013
With New York City Council Speaker Christine Quinn refusing to allow an even watered down version of the Paid Sick Time Act to come to a vote after 1,000 days, advocates for the measure took to the steps of City Hall on January 18, bringing along with them a cadre of white-coated physicians concerned about this season's growing flu epidemic.
"We know the flu virus is able to live on surfaces like the glass your waiter hands you, or the coffee cup passed to you by the barista, or the woman who couldn't take time away from work and holds a subway pole shortly before you do," Dr. Stacy De-Lin of the NYC Committee of Interns and Residents said. "As New Yorkers, we share space intimately, and playing politics in the middle of a flu epidemic makes no sense at all."
According to the Department of Health, this season's flu outbreak started spiking in December, and is already four times worse than it was last year. In response, Governor Andrew Cuomo, along with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), have declared a public health emergency.
"Everyone knows what you're supposed to do when you get sick; you're supposed to stay home, get rest and not infect others," said Dr. Michael Hernandez, president-elect of the Public Health Association of New York.
"Unfortunately, for hundreds of thousands of workers in New York City, this is just not possible. It is not that simple. Why? Because they can't. There is no paid sick leave. That is why it is important that we act now. Not only to protect our fellow citizens, but to protect ourselves."
As much as five percent of all doctor visits are now said to be flu related. Doctors advise patients battling the flu to stay home at least 24 hours after their fever has subsided in order to help prevent further spread of the potentially deadly infection.
"We have the working sick traveling our buses, our cabs our trains and our planes, spreading an epidemic throughout the nation," said Dr. Frank Proscia, executive director of the NYC Doctors Council. "This City Council has a bill, it just has to come up for a vote. It's the best thing that we could do for prevention and treatment of this flu, and any illness in general."
The Paid Sick Time Act, originally sponsored by New York City Councilwoman Gail Brewer, has remained in limbo for years, even though it enjoys overwhelming popular support among the public at large, as well as 37 other members of the City Council.
"Shame on the City Council," Congresswoman Nydia Velazquez said. "It's a disgrace. They should bring this legislation to a vote. Why are they so afraid? Let regular order take its course. Bring it to the floor of the City Council, if it doesn't make sense, members of the City Council will vote it down. We should not be listening to the big retailers in New York City who are not providing this type of right to their workers. We should be listening to our doctors, physicians and the CDC. Do the right thing for once, and bring this legislation to the City Council for a vote."
One member of the Retail Action Project said that he was sick with the flu for a week earlier this year, but still dragged himself to work everyday because he feared losing his job as a cashier at Urban Outfitters.
"Because I'm a cashier, not only did I put my co-workers at risk, but also the hundreds of customers each day that I took cash and credit cards from while coughing and blowing my nose," he said.
City and state workers, unlike their counterparts in the retail and restaurant industries, already enjoy paid sick time coverage.
"You know, if somebody in my office get sick, we send them home and we even bring them chicken soup from one of our kosher delis," New York State Assemblyman Jeffrey Dinowitz said. "But we have that right because we have paid sick leave in our office. What I don't get is our business community. Our friends in the business community, for some reason, think think it's good for them to have their workers spread disease and illness in their establishments. I disagree. If I were a business person, the first thing that I would want to do is make sure that nobody who works for me comes into work and gets other workers sick."
Judy Sheridan-Gonzalez, vice-president of the New York State Nurses Association likened big-monied opposition to the Paid Sick Time Act to the economic barons of yesteryear who opposed every progressive advancement won in the last century.
"The so-called costs of paid sick days, in reality saves no money at all," Sheridan-Gonzalez said. "Everyone pays when sick people are forced to go to work. One hundred years ago, the same businesses that opposed paid sick days, opposed child labor laws. They said it would hurt the economy, and children as young as five-years-old languished in sweatshops. In the same century, these same business interests opposed safety on the job. Those are the folks that brought us the Triangle waistshirt fire."
Dr. De-Lin said that missing just a single day of work due to illness is often economically disastrous for many of the low-wage earners she treats at her Manhattan-based family medicine clinic.
"Last week, a doting daughter brought my patient, her elderly mother, in to see me," Dr. De-Lin said. "Her mother, with a known lung disease, came to my clinic quite ill. Her daughter said that she had been like this for days and was getting worse at home. But the daughter was the only caretaker and was unable to take the time off from work and bring her in. Now, with severe pneumonia that I likely could have treated with antibiotics two days before, I had no choice but to send her to the hospital for intensive – and expensive – in-patient treatment. Her daughter was guilt-stricken and heartbroken."
Up to 1.5 million New Yorkers currently without any protections could directly benefit from the Paid Sick Time Act if enacted. The number of others who might also benefit by avoiding infection would increase exponentially.
"As a matter of fairness to workers, every worker ought to have paid sick days," said Richard Gottfried, chair of the New York State Assembly Health Committee. "But none of us should have to go to a restaurant or dry cleaners or anywhere else, and have to worry that the worker we're talking to, or serving our food, has had to come to work sick. This bill should be passed into law, and it should not be watered down so that it doesn't cover every worker."
While demonstrators singled out Mayor Mike Bloomberg's stated opposition to the Paid Sick Time Act, Quinn – considered among the frontrunners to succeed Bloomberg – managed to escape being directly blamed for inaction on the popular measure. When pressed, Councilwoman Brewer said "The speaker has indicated that she is not supportive of this bill. But we are going to push and push to get this bill."
Dr. De-Lin stressed that having paid sick leave for New York City is a clear-cut public health issue with one solution: if you're sick, you should stay home and take care of yourself. And if you are very sick, see your doctor.
"Passing the Paid Sick Time Act isn't just good for the 1.5 million workers who will gain that extra security, it's good for the health of all New Yorkers," Dr. De-Lin said. "So, here's my prescription: it's time to get this done – now."