March 22 saw the first forward movement in some time on New York City’s paid sick days bill, which RH Reality Check covered extensively last month. The city council’s Committee on Civil Service and Labor held a hearing on the bill, with plenty of debate and, at times, heated questioning.
The most notable thing about the hearing, though, might have been what didn’t happen. City Council Speaker and mayoral hopeful Christine Quinn did not ask a single question of the panels and indeed was present for less than an hour. Quinn turned up around 11:20 am, nearly an hour after the hearing’s scheduled start time (it, like many legislative events, started late). She apologized and noted that she’d been “at the Chamber of Commerce.” Later, a representative from the Staten Island Chamber of Commerce who was representing the five boroughs spoke passionately against the bill. She disappeared again in the middle of the second panel, presumably to attend the mayoral candidate forum briefly mentioned by one of her opponents, former City Comptroller Bill Thompson, while he testified in favor of the bill on the third panel.
Quinn’s silence was notable because she is widely perceived to be the only obstacle standing between the bill and its passage, as RHRC noted in February. Quinn said when she arrived that she was “here to listen,” but observers on either side of the issue were left with no new information as to where the speaker might stand on the bill. After all, the wishes of the panelists and even the mayor (who opposes paid sick days) would be a moot point if the bill as it stands came up for a vote—it has enough co-sponsors to pass with a veto-proof majority, meaning that Quinn’s opinion, much more so than those of business or labor leaders, is the one that matters.
The bill’s sponsor, Council Member Gale Brewer, and many of the cosponsors, including council members Letitia James, Brad Lander, Stephen Levin, Jessica Lappin, Melissa Mark-Viverito, and Robert Jackson, and Public Advocate (and also mayoral hopeful) Bill de Blasio did question panelists, as did Daniel Halloran, a Queens council member famous for blaming the city’s slow plowing after the 2010 snowstorm on a “union slowdown” and then refusing to produce evidence for such a thing.
Representatives from organized labor, low-wage workers, small business owners, think-tankers, and representatives of the business community spoke, putting forward personal stories, statistics, and anecdotes in hopes of swaying the council’s minds about the bill. The opposition included Kathryn Wylde, whose Partnership for New York City represents Wall Street banks and other big businesses, and a few small business owners who argued passionately that they would be unable to stay in business if they had to provide sick time. All of the opponents avoided saying that they opposed providing sick days to their employees; rather, they complained that the bill would require enforcement by the Department of Health, that it was unfair that their opposition to the bill had led to lost customers, and that most of them already provide paid sick days, so the bill is unnecessary.
Council Member Brad Lander at one point had a heated debate with New York City Hospitality Alliance Counsel Robert Bookman, who argued that workers and their bosses should split the cost of paid sick time. Lander replied “It’s silly and offensive that you think employers and workers making minimum wage … should split equally the costs of their illness.” He also pointed out that many of these low-wage employers are not the city’s smallest businesses (which are excluded from the bill if they have less than five employees), but rather giant corporations like McDonald’s that can certainly afford the cost.
Not all the business leaders were opposed to the paid sick days bill. Harlem Business Alliance Executive Director Regina Smith spoke in favor of the bill, saying, “To do good work, workers must be in good health.” Brewer noted that the Harlem Chamber of Commerce also supports this bill. Representatives from Eileen Fisher and Blue Bottle Coffee also came to the hearing in favor of the legislation.
Prompted by Council Member James, Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz, Jr., spoke of the bill’s impact on his community—particularly Latina women, not even half of whom have access to paid sick leave to care for themselves or their families. De Blasio spoke once Quinn had arrived, and seemed to be less interested in asking questions of the panel before him—which included supporters from organized labor and a worker representative, Pablo Martinez, who works at a local car wash—and more interested in making a few points. For instance, he called for a speedy vote on the issue, and also emphasized the need for the bill to cover as many workers as possible—possibly an attempt to head off the compromise that James hinted was coming in RHRC’s previous report.
The hearings thinned out as the day went on, both on the panel and in the audience, but there were determined community members still sitting there long after most of the council members had left, holding signs calling for the bill’s passage.
Dr. Manisha Sharma, who testified about the public health impact of workers going to work sick, said as her panel ended, “This is on all of us to create a healthy village. We all have a stake in this.”