In Abrupt Shift, Quinn Agrees to Move on Paid Sick Leave

City Council Speaker Christine Quinn at the March 20 LGBT mayoral forum. | DONNA ACETO

City Council Speaker Christine Quinn at the March 20 LGBT mayoral forum. | DONNA ACETO

Little more than a week after City Council Speaker Christine Quinn told an audience of hundreds at an LGBT Democratic mayoral forum that she was not in favor of moving forward now on pending paid sick leave legislation, she will announce support for a modified bill at a City Hall press conference on March 29.

“Today, we have an agreement in principle on a bill that will provide New Yorkers with access to paid sick days and, at the same time, exempt small businesses that are least able to provide this benefit,” the speaker said in a written statement released the evening of March 28 “We have a good, strong, and sensible piece of legislation that recognizes the needs of everyday New Yorkers and the realities that our struggling small businesses face.”

The legislation, which will take effect on April 1, 2014, will initially require companies with 20 or more employees to provide five days of paid sick leave. Over an 18-month rollout, that minimum threshold will be reduced to 15 employees. Even companies that are not covered by the legislation must, as of next April, allow their workers sick leave, paid or unpaid, of five days without repercussion on their employment status.

The original legislation proposed by West Side City Councilwoman Gale Brewer, long stalled in the Council, put paid sick leave requirements on all businesses with five or more employees.

Under the compromise announced, employees must have worked for at least four months for their sick leave eligibility to kick in, and seasonal and work-study employees are not covered.

According to a spokesman for the Working Families Party (WFP), manufacturing businesses will also be exempt from the paid sick leave requirement, though workers at such companies will still have the right to five unpaid days off without repercussion.

The law will be enforced by the Department of Consumer Affairs. In the Brewer legislation, the health department would have had enforcement responsibility. The change is a concession to concerns from small businesses, especially restaurants, that often complain of overzealous health inspectors.

Provisions in the Brewer legislation providing a legal right of civil action to employees against businesses not complying with the law has been eliminated in favor of a complaint process that will go through Consumer Affairs. A fact sheet released by Quinn’s office stated that the change prevents “a system that could allow for excessive and unsubstantiated lawsuits against business owners.”

Minimum fines have been reduced from $1,000 under the Brewer plan to $500, with the maximum lowered from $5,000 to $2,500.

The speaker had explained her unwillingness to move on paid sick leave by pointing to the softness of the New York economy, and the legislation gives the city one last out on that score prior to implementation. If economic activity in the city is lower on January 1, 2014 than it was on January 1, 2012 –– as measured by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York’s Coincident Index –– the bill will not take effect next April. The WFP spokesman said sick leave advocates were confident the legislation would surmount that hurdle.

The spokesman added that after all the requirements of the legislation have taken effect during the 18-month rollout, the city’s Independent Budget Office will examine its impact, with the possibility that businesses with fewer than 15 employees would be added.

Quinn’s office and the WFP agreed that the legislative compromise would cover one million New Yorkers who currently get no paid sick leave.

Advocates responded with praise for the compromise legislative package.

Hector Figueroa, the president of SEIU 32BJ, a union of building services workers, said, “We… applaud Speaker Quinn for negotiating a bill that will give more than a million workers paid sick days and provide hundreds of thousands more with an assurance that they won't have to choose between taking their child to a doctor and losing their job.”

Quinn singled out Figueroa for praise in her written statement.

“This is a great day for New York’s working families,” said WFP deputy director Bill Lipton, in a written statement. “[I]t’s now illegal for any worker to be fired for missing a few days work because of illness.”

In the Council release issued by Quinn’s office, Brewer, who consistently said the speaker continued a dialogue with her over her proposed legislation even while declining to move forward, said, “After three years of non-stop advocacy and coalition building, I am pleased and grateful that we have reached a deal with Speaker Christine C. Quinn on my paid sick leave bill.”

Business leaders quoted in the Council release, though not offering support for the compromise, expressed relief that Quinn had sought their input.

“We thank Speaker Quinn for listening to the concerns of the business community with regards to a municipal paid sick leave mandate,” said Kathy Wylde, president of the Partnership for New York City. “While we have not seen final legislation, the framework that Speaker Quinn is proposing appears to be a substantial improvement over previous versions of the legislation.”

Crain’s New York Business, in a March 28 story detailing the sick leave compromise, quoted Wylde as saying, “We don't support paid sick leave, period.” Wylde is a contributor to Quinn’s mayoral campaign.

Nancy Ploeger, president of the Manhattan Chamber of Commerce, in a statement that was also part of the Council’s release, said, “We strongly believe that any paid sick leave mandate should be taken up at the state or federal level instead of the City Council. However, we are very thankful that Speaker Quinn recognized that the Brewer bill was overly punitive and costly for the small business community.”

Gay City News March 27 cover. | MICHAEL SHIREY

Gay City News' March 27 cover. | MICHAEL SHIREY

Quinn had come under increased pressure in recent months to move on paid sick leave but had remained firm in resisting a Council vote on Brewer’s bill, at least for now. At last week’s LGBT mayoral forum, she said, “I support the concept of paid sick leave, but not this bill in its current formation. It’s not a question for me of if, it’s a question of when.”

Her rivals were aggressive during the forum in taking her on over the issue, with Bill Thompson, the former city comptroller, saying, “Speaker Quinn, you need to stop blocking this bill right now.”

Sal Albanese, a former member of the City Council from Brooklyn, noted that with a majority of members in support of the measure, Quinn was using the same tactic that Council leadership had employed in the 1970s and ‘80s to block a vote on the gay right law.

In recent days, a dozen or so Council members had pledged to support a motion to discharge on Brewer’s legislation, a parliamentary move aimed at sidestepping Quinn’s opposition to allowing a vote. WFP was involved in those efforts and was left out of the negotiations with Quinn over the compromise package.

Quinn’s earlier recalcitrance on the issue had sparked criticism in progressive circles. Gloria Steinem, the longtime feminist leader, recently said she would withdraw her endorsement of Quinn if she did not move on paid sick leave.

August 2012 cover story on paid sick leave. | MICHAEL SHIREY

August 2012 cover story on paid sick leave. | MICHAEL SHIREY

Last summer, a number of LGBT leaders –– including Dr. Marjorie Hill, CEO of Gay Men’s Health Crisis, Liz Margolies, executive director of the National LGBT Cancer Network, Melissa Goodman, an LGBT and reproductive rights attorney at the New York Civil Liberties Union, and Amber Hollibaugh, the co-director of Queers for Economic Justice –– told Gay City News they were strong backers of paid sick leave.

“We are a public health organization and so obviously committed to structures and policies that will promote public health,” Hill said. “And we are a social justice organization committed to equity for all.”