By John Samuelsen
Imagine a cafeteria worker with flu-like symptoms preparing school lunches.
Or a school bus operator with a fever driving your kids home.
Or a home healthcare aide struggling to stifle a persistent cough caring for a frail senior citizen.
These aren’t fictional scenes from a movie like “Contagion” where a virus spreads through an unwitting population as people go about their ordinary routines.
This is real. It has happened, and will continue to happen, unless elected officials, such as members of the Westchester Board of Legislators, enact a common-sense preventative measure: Earned Sick Time legislation.
Under a bill introduced by Majority Leader Catherine Borgia (D-Ossining) and supported by the Democratic Caucus, workers would be eligible for one hour of paid sick time for every 30 hours they work – for a maximum of five earned sick days a year.
This isn’t a freebie. It’s earned and limited. And the smallest businesses – those with less than five workers – are exempt.
A surprising number of workers – more than 100,000 in Westchester alone – are not guaranteed paid sick days from their employers. Many of them are in low-wage jobs. They can’t afford to lose a day’s wages. So, they trudge to work no matter how badly they are feeling and spread their illness.
One study published in the American Journal of Public Health estimated that workers’ inability to take paid sick time was responsible for five million people in the United States coming down with influenza-like illness during the 2009 pandemic. Pandemics don’t happen every year but the flu and other viruses do affect millions of people annually.
Transport Workers Union Local 100 member Jamare Pabon is familiar with this ongoing public health threat. A school bus operator in Yonkers and a mother of four, Pabon has been compelled to go to work when sick. She needs the income. She also regularly sees other parents put sick kids on the bus because they too can’t afford a babysitter or make ends meet on a smaller paycheck.
“There really is no choice,” she said. “You have to go to work. Either you work or you don’t pay your bills.”
Earned Sick Time legislation is being passed by government entities all over the United States, most recently by the red state of Arizona. Legislation has been enacted by New York City and the state of Connecticut.
That creates some odd situations. A person living in Yonkers but working in New York City gets Earned Sick Time. But a New York City resident working in Yonkers does not.
That puts Westchester businesses at a competitive disadvantage when trying to hire and retain workers. Working for a contractor, restaurant, diner, clothing store based in the Bronx is now more appealing than working for one in Westchester.
Some people instinctively think Earned Sick Time is an economic burden on businesses. There is evidence, however, to strongly suggest that’s not the case.
“I haven’t heard anything about this being onerous to anybody,” said Andrew Albert, president of the West Manhattan Chamber of Commerce.
Before Earned Sick Time went into effect in the city in 2014 “there was a lot of fear,” Albert said. “Now that it’s in place, I haven’t heard anything.”
Many businesses already decline to dock the wages of an employee who needs a few days to get well.
“I don’t want everybody else to get sick,” said Art Templeton, owner of East Gun Hill Auto Parts in the Bronx. “I don’t need it. It’s just not worth it.”
On the rare occasion that someone calls in sick, their co-workers and manager often pick up the slack, if necessary.
Earned Sick Time will make Westchester a healthier place for everyone. That’s why the Transport Workers Union supports the legislation backed by the Democratic Caucus. Our members and all other voters in Westchester will be watching to see where the other county legislators stand on this public health issue, including Virginia Perez, David Tubiolo and Gordon Burrows of Yonkers and Michael Kaplowitz of Somers.
John Samuelsen is international president of the Transport Workers Union, which represents 140,000 workers in the transit, railroad, airline, university, utility, service and gaming sectors.