News Politics

New York City Council Holds Paid Sick Days Hearing, But Mayoral Hopeful Quinn Barely Shows

Sarah Jaffe

Christine Quinn's silence was notable because she is widely perceived to be the only obstacle standing between the bill and its passage.

March 22 saw the first forward movement in some time on New York City’s paid sick days bill, which Rewire 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 Rewire 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.

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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 Rewire’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.”

News Economic Justice

New York City Wage Theft Law Would Include Big Fines, Jail Time

Teddy Wilson

Businesses in New York City would be required to provide freelance employees with contracts or face severe penalties, including jail time, if they did not pay freelance employees, according to a bill introduced this week in the New York City Council.

The New York City Council is considering passage of what would be one of the country’s toughest wage theft policies as lawmakers nationwide look for ways to crack down on the illegal business practice.

Businesses in New York City would be required to provide freelance employees with contracts or face severe penalties, including jail time, if they did not pay freelance employees, according to a bill introduced this week in the New York City Council.

The Freelance Isn’t Free Act, introduced by Councilman Brad Lander (D-Brooklyn), is modeled after legal protections provided for traditional employees against wage theft. Employers who refuse to pay or attempt to delay payment would face penalties including monetary damages, attorney’s fees, and civil penalties.

Lander said in a statement that the bill is a first-of-its-kind piece of legislation that would provide freelancers with protection from wage left.

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“The bill works by requiring any company who hires a freelance worker to execute a simple written contract, describing the work to be completed, the rate and method of payment, and date when payment is due,” Lander said.

The new bill comes less than a month after Mayor Bill de Blasio signed a bill creating the Office of Labor Standards to enforce the city’s labor laws.

State and city policymakers across the country have pushed for laws that would help employees receive fair payment from employers who often withhold money without consequence. A recent study showed that wage theft is rampant in Minnesota. Democratic lawmakers in Wisconsin have grappled with how to ensure low-wage workers are paid what they’re owed, while in California—where wage theft costs workers $29 million per week in lost pay—lawmakers consider penalties for employers who violate labor laws.

Under the New York City bill, employers would be required to provide freelancers with contracts that include the length of the employment and the compensation the freelancer will receive. Employers will have 30 days to pay freelance employees upon completion of the contracted services.

Employers who violate the proposed law would face civil penalties, including a fine of up to $5,000, and an additional $100 for every day that payments are withheld. The proposed law includes criminal penalties of a fine of up to $500 and imprisonment of up to three months.

A notable exception to the proposed law would be that the city government would be exempt, as an employer, from adhering to the new rules with freelancers it hires.

Lander told Crain’s New York Business that the bill could be amended to ensure freelancers working with the city government would have the same protections. “We have to make sure the city isn’t stiffing its freelance workers,” Lander said.

The bill has the support of the Freelancers Union, an organization that advocates for legal protections for freelancers but is not a labor union and cannot collectively bargain for its members.

Sara Horowitz, the Freelancers Union’s founder and executive director, told the Washington Post that wage theft against freelance workers is disturbingly commonplace.

“It’s almost become something that people view as the price of doing business, just accepting that they won’t get paid,” Horowitz said. “It’s really crazy, because it’s a lot of money, and it’s really bad practice for companies to think they can do this.”

The Service Employees International Union (SEIU) has lent its support to the bill. Hector Figueroa, president of 32BJ SEIU told the Nonprofit Quarterly that the union is supporting the bill because wage theft affects workers across many socioeconomic backgrounds, from day laborers to freelance journalists.

“That’s why we’re coming together in this coalition,” Figueroa said. “The union movement was built on solidarity and strength in numbers and that’s how we’ll win independent workers the equal protection they deserve.”

Rachel Northrop, a freelancer working in New York, told the Washington Post that when a magazine she did freelance work for stopped paying her, she questioned whether she could continue working as a freelancer.

“Non-payment paralyzes the most motivated sector of people, who are willing to work on their own schedule, be independent and self sufficient,” Northrop said. “When other people hear this, it makes people think ‘let me stay at this boring job that I don’t even like.’”

Lander said that more than 70 percent of freelancers have reported being paid late, being underpaid, or not being paid at all, and on average it cost freelance workers $6,390 per year.

There were more than $20 million in lost income per week in New York due to wage theft, according to a study released last year by the U.S. Department of Labor. The study concluded that 19.5 percent of low-wage workers in New York had their wages stolen each month.

A 2009 study conducted by the Center for Urban Economic Development examined data from Los Angeles, Chicago, and New York, and found that 26 percent of low-wage workers were paid less than the minimum wage in the week prior to the survey.

The Business Council of New York State, a lobbyist group, opposes the bill. Zack Hutchins, spokesperson for the council, told Crain’s New York Business that the bill is unnecessary because the market weeds out bad actors.

“Companies that don’t pay freelancers properly, or on time, quickly find themselves unable to hire freelancers,” Hutchins said. “All this bill will do is put another law on the books that regulators will be unable to enforce and add to the burden of the 99 percent of business owners who act properly every day.”

Lander said that he will pursue other measures designed to protect workers’ rights.

Lander introduced another bill Monday that would change the legal definition of “employee” to include interns, and would clarify the protections for part-time, temporary, leased, and seasonal workers and independent contractors under the city’s human rights law.

The bill has been referred to the Committee on Consumer Affairs, where it awaits further action.

News Family

D.C. Workers Could Soon Get 16 Weeks of Paid Family and Medical Leave

Emily Crockett

If the Universal Paid Leave Act of 2015 passes, almost everyone who works in the District of Columbia will qualify for up to 16 weeks of paid family and medical leave.

Paid family leave may be going nowhere on Capitol Hill, but Washington, D.C.’s local government just introduced the nation’s most ambitious family leave proposal.

If the Universal Paid Leave Act of 2015 passes, almost everyone who works in the District of Columbia will qualify for up to 16 weeks of paid family and medical leave. They can use that time to bond with a new baby or an adopted child, care for a sick relative, or deal with their own serious health condition.

The bill is also written to be LGBTQ-inclusive and to account for the health needs of military families.

The exact costs are still being calculated, but the program will be funded by a progressive payroll tax on employers equivalent to 1 percent or less of each employee’s salary. The District isn’t allowed to tax either the federal government or commuters from other states, so federal employees who live in Virginia and Maryland aren’t included. Federal employees who live in D.C. would pay into the fund themselves, and self-employed people can choose to pay into the program in order to receive the benefit.

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“It’s the right thing to do,” D.C. Councilmember David Grosso told Rewire. “The more we support families—the more we support people being engaged with bringing up children, with caring for loved ones who are getting older—the better city we’re going to be.”

It also gives the District a “competitive edge,” Grosso said, because the benefit will attract talented workers to the area.

Grosso co-wrote the legislation with Councilmember Elissa Silverman, and the bill was introduced with seven co-sponsors on the 13-member council. Grosso said he expects the bill will get a hearing before the end of the year, and that once it passes, workers could expect to start drawing benefits in early to mid-2017.

California, New Jersey, and Rhode Island have paid leave insurance programs, but D.C.’s program is much more generous than any of them.

Whereas New Jersey and California offer six weeks of partially paid leave, the District’s plan would offer 16 weeks of fully paid leave for people who make less than $1,000 per week. People who make more than that can add 50 percent of whatever they make over $1,000, with the benefit capped at $3,000.

The District already guarantees a person’s job for up to 16 weeks of unpaid leave, but workers must have been with a company for either 1,000 hours or one year. This bill would reduce that to six months or 500 hours, helping to expand the new paid leave benefit to more low-income, short-term, and part-time workers who would most risk losing their job if they take time off.

These provisions help ensure that the benefit will be universal, and not just favor white-collar workers who may already have generous leave benefits. Low-income people who can’t afford a partial paycheck could take the leave they need, and small businesses that can’t afford a generous leave program could offer that benefit for a low cost. Businesses that already have generous leave programs could actually save money, Grosso noted.

Other paid leave insurance proposals split the cost between employers and employees. But because D.C. isn’t allowed to levy a commuter tax on people who live in Virginia or Maryland but work in the District, the funds had to come from employers in order to cover those workers.

The local Chamber of Commerce opposes the legislation, but Grosso said he isn’t worried. He said businesses are savvy enough to realize that they can pass on some of the costs to their workers if need be, and the bill doesn’t prohibit that. He thinks it’s good for businesses, because the benefits will make them more competitive and they’ll have happier, more loyal, more productive workers.

“I think the benefits here outweigh any kind of burden that the businesses might think they’re going to have,” Grosso said.

States and municipalities have led the way on paid leave in recent years, and advocates hope that growing momentum at the local level will help light a fire under Congress to pass national legislation. The Obama administration has been doing all it can to push for national paid leave despite a recalcitrant GOP-led Congress, using tools like research grants for localities to study the effects of paid leave and executive orders that affect federal workers.

The United States is the only developed country that doesn’t offer some kind of national paid maternity leave policy. Advocates are also pushing for paid paternity leave, since worldwide research shows benefits to families when fathers are more equally involved in child care early on.

D.C.’s bill applies to any new parent, and includes an expansive definition of “family member.”

“People say this is revolutionary new stuff,” Grosso said. “It really isn’t. Around the world they do this, and give a lot of respect to building strong families. In this country we’re just way behind the times.”