“I was forced to ask my boss for some time off so I could take care of my sibling. When I asked for a few days of leave, my boss told me flat-out: if you go, don’t bother coming back.”
These are the words of Ai Elo, a restaurant worker from Brooklyn and member of the Restaurant Opportunity Center, who told her story about getting fired when she needed to take care of her younger brother at a rally held a few weeks ago to mark the launch of a new Women for Paid Sick Days Initiative. Sadly and unfairly, Ai’s story is not unique in New York City, where I live, and around the world. There are about a million workers in New York who lack paid sick days. They are of us and among us. They prepare food, check out groceries, take care of children, and take care of elderly parents. They primarily occupy service-sector and relatively low-wage jobs. The majority are women and many are immigrants, historically marginalized and systematically disenfranchised populations. As Julie Kushner, Director of UAW Region 9A, and a leader in the Working Families Party said, “when catching a flu means missing a day’s pay, or having an ER visit for your child means potentially losing your job, that’s just not right. And it’s of particular concern to working women.”
But through an exciting and electrifying new campaign a new campaign in New York led by the Working Families Party with other community leaders — including feminist icon and legendary activist Gloria Steinem — activists and organizers, including feminists, are coming together to do something about it.
Paid sick leave makes good sense. Sick people often display one or more of the following qualities: contagiousness, grumpiness, inability to be productive, sleepiness, exhaustion, diarrhea/gas/puking/other unpleasant and uncontrollable bodily functions, feverish hallucinations, physical weakness (may lead to the desire to do nothing but stream Netflix all day), needing to go to the doctor, needing to take medicine, needing to be with their friends, family, and loved ones.
For a variety of reasons, these qualities are not generally conducive to a productive workday. Sick people are best serving their employers AND themselves by taking some time off to heal. Offering paid sick leave is a good idea for both employee and employer. Common sense, right?
Maybe it’s the seemingly straightforward nature of the issue that makes it so easy to take for granted. If you’re the kind of optimistic person who assumes that policies that make sense for working people are generally implemented, you might not know that today, more than a third (37 percent) of working women—more than 13 million—in businesses with 15 or more employees are not able to take a paid sick day when they or a family member are ill. I personally find it mindblowing that paid sick leave is even a controversial issue in this day and age. And maybe that’s my privilege showing. But not anymore. In today’s struggle for paid sick leave– and it’s just now heating up where I live, in New York City– feminists got your back.
Feminists have long been allied with working women. As Professors Eileen Boris and Annalise Orleck explain in their excellent journal article for Project Muse, “For at least a century, labor feminists have fought for the interests of wage-earning women and working-class housewives, both within the feminist and the labor movements.”
But I can’t recall an instance in recent memory when mainstream feminist leaders like Gloria Steinem have come forward so visibly and loudly to organize around a labor issue.
In fact, a new campaign in New York features just such collaboration. The campaign, led by the Working Families Party with other community leaders — including feminist icon and legendary activist Gloria Steinem — aims to put pressure on Christine Quinn, current speaker of the house to bring a bill to the City Council that would legislate a minimum number of paid sick leave days. Organizers of the campaign are successfully putting pressure on Quinn, who recently wed her longtime partner and hopes to become the first woman mayor of New York City. The fact that she is stonewalling an issue that is so important to so many working women does not bode well for the rallying support among women and feminists that an openly gay Democratic woman might have expected in New York City.
Why is this a feminist issue, and one that’s important to women and families? Besides being a question of basic economic security and workplace dignity, lack of paid sick leave is something that disproportionately affects women. Low-wage workers—the majority of whom are women—are less likely to have paid sick days. Two-thirds of low income workers making $10.63 per hour or less don’t have access to paid sick time, and the industries that are often women-dominated are among the least likely to offer paid sick days. For example, according to this factsheet nearly three-quarters of child care workers (72 percent) and food service workers (73 percent) lack access to paid sick time. Plus, we can’t forget that for better or worse, women remain the primary caregivers in most households. When members of their family get sick, they are more often called upon.
Working Families Party and allied groups have been pushing this issue for awhile (WFP helped pass a similar bill in CT and that was the first state-wide paid sick days law in America). The opposition to it seems primarily ideological and not financial. Insiders report a mentality that “nobody should be able to tell the all-powerful masters of business what to do” that goes straight to the top. In general, big business tends to feel like adding a new business standard — no matter how basic– is a threat to their image and a potential slippery slope. So even though the dollar for dollar cost is much smaller (a study put out by economic policy institute in CT found that the cost of paid sick days is about .19% of companies’ sales) and in fact there could be substantial savings to employers in providing paid sick days (via reduced transmission of sickness on the job, reduction of costly errors, or likelihood to infect a co-worker or customer), they are still resisting with all the lobbying dollars they can.
The funny thing is, even with the resistance from big business, this bill makes such good sense that it has a super majority of support on the city council. Activists are optimistic that if Quinn just brings it to the floor, it would win the vote. But so far she has blocked the vote. If this frustrates you, you’re not alone. So over the next few months, expect to see a lot of activity around this. At the rally a few weeks ago, Ai-jen Poo, Director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, promised that she would keep pushing on this issue. “It’s time to make paid sick days for New York’s working women and men a reality. We’re going to push and prod and call on Speaker Quinn to bring this important measure up for a vote.”
Yet despite the growing chorus of voices calling on Quinn to bring the bill forward, Quinn is maintaining her position, at least as of this week. Writes Josh Eidelson for In These Times:
In an e-mail to The New York Times this week, Quinn maintained her opposition. Echoing her past comments, Quinn said that she supported the goal, but “with the current state of the economy and so many businesses struggling to stay alive, I do not believe it would be wise to implement this policy, in this way, at this time.” Quinn also wrote, “I stand by the commitment I made more than a year ago—to continue to meet and discuss the legislation, in the context of the evolving economy, with council leaders” and supporters. Quinn’s comments came in the Times’ report on a letter from 200 prominent women calling for the speaker to allow a vote.
Want to change her mind? Click here to join the movement and sign Gloria Steinem’s petition to the New York City Council to pass the paid sick leave bill.