Two laws for the two New Yorks

October 16, 2014

Natalia Tylim describes the double standards in how New York City enforces a new law that is supposed to benefit workers--as opposed to the old laws that target them.

EARLIER THIS year, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and the City Council passed a bill that guarantees workers the right to paid sick days. The new law was hailed as a sign that de Blasio, who described the city's growing inequality as "a tale of two cities" during the election, was going to fulfill his campaign promise to alleviate the difficulties workers face.

In practice, however, city officials have been slow to enforce the new law and taken a gentle approach with businesses that break it--including employers who have fired workers in retaliation for asserting their new rights. Comparing the lax enforcement of the sick day law with the aggressive police approach to working class people of color speaks volumes about the priorities of the de Blasio administration and the pervading divide between business interests and our own.

The language of the Paid Sick Leave Act passed this spring promised workers in New York City the right to call in sick to their jobs without worrying about whether missing a day's pay would impact the ability to make rent or pay for groceries. This may seem like a basic right, but for hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of workers in some of the most precarious occupations, the right to paid sick leave is a huge victory.

New York City's new Mayor Bill de Blasio
New York City's new Mayor Bill de Blasio (Gerard Flynn)

The bill mandates that every employer with five or more employees who work more than 80 hours a year must provide paid sick days. Sick time is earned based on time worked--for every 30 hours, one hour is accrued, up to 40 hours per year. The language in the bill has been expanded to allow paid time off if a family member or child is sick and in need of care.

But all of this only matters if the law is enforced. According to a report by the Wall Street Journal, out of the 189 complaints of non-cooperation with the new law that have been filed with the city, only one resulted in a worker receiving any money from an employer--and that was the money the worker was owed in sick pay and wages. Through businesses are subject to a fine for infractions, not a single one has yet been issued. Instead, 112 cases are still being actively mediated or investigated, while 60 have been resolved through mediation.

Julie Menin, the commissioner of the department in charge of enforcing the sick day law, told a reporter that the city's "first course of action will always be mediation, and we are extremely proud of the fact that we have been able to successfully mediate--or are in the process of mediating--almost all of the complaints." Instead of pushing harder to let bosses know that this is the expected new standard, the city is spending $2 million on an outreach campaign to educate businesses.

BY NOT penalizing businesses, the city is sending a message that there are no serious consequences to breaching the Sick Leave Act. Alarmingly, 10 percent of the complaints involve retaliation from an employer, including seven firings. These cases have yet to be resolved, which sends a message to workers: it might be the law, but access it at your own risk, and don't expect us to have your back when you get in trouble for it. This is likely to have an impact on how many individuals will stand up for what they are entitled to.

In addition to the problems of enforcement, there is a significant weakness in the legislation itself. In the initial draft of the bill, all workers were included--but before it was signed, a clause was inserted that excludes employees who can pick up an extra shift in a given week from being eligible for paid sick days. Hundreds of thousands of workers--from restaurants to non-union construction sites--fall under the "shift worker" category.

I work in restaurants, and I know firsthand how many of us push through shifts with the flu or strep throat because losing that day's wage is simply not an option. In most restaurants, if you are sick, you must find someone to cover for you, and if you can't, then you better show up or you could lose your job.

Despite these weaknesses, many in the business community are not happy about the new law. Employers claim that the financial burden of having to pay their workers will be too much to keep their businesses afloat, and they are therefore slow to comply. Nora Nealis, executive director of the National Cleaners Association, claims that paying sick days is "death by 1,000 cuts" for businesses.

It's hard to stomach these complaints from people who face mediation for breaking the law when we see the double standard of harsh enforcement and punishments carried out every day by the city's police department.

When Police Commissioner William Bratton decided to crack down on subway vendors and performers, the city had no problem immediately implementing the new policy. Arrests of those asking for money in exchange for churros or impressive acrobatics have skyrocketed since De Blasio took office. Hundreds have been arrested, fined, and even charged with reckless endangerment, a charge that carries up to a year in jail.

There has been no mediator to soften the blows for these folks, who are overwhelmingly working class people of color--no $2 million outreach campaign. Is a fine not a huge financial burden for someone trying to eek out a living on subway platforms? Arguably, the process of having to spend a night in jail and go through the court system that costs time and money has a much bigger impact on a person's livelihood compared to a $250 or $500 fine for a business that is breaking the law.

New Yorkers continue to live the tale of two cities that de Blasio talked about during his campaign for mayor--and the laws are made and enforced to police and control only one of these two cities.

Business, real estate interests and the rich are held to an entirely different standard and subject to a different set of rules. If you interfere with the feel and look of a gentrified, sterile New York you can be arrested. But if you are a cop who takes a young Black life in broad daylight, you get desk duty--and if you're a business owner who steals your employees' wages and sick pay, you just have to have a friendly chat with a mediator.

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