Still divided over paid sick days act

THE COURIER/Photo by Christopher Brito

When Celina Alvarez began to suffer from a serious heart problem that caused her to faint at work in February, she needed to see a doctor.

She resisted, however, because she had no paid sick days from her job as a chef at Taqueria La Casa Del Idolo, a Mexican taco restaurant in Elmhurst. The immigrant and mother couldn’t afford lose her income.

After suffering pain for nearly a week she gave in and went to the hospital, but two weeks later when Alvarez returned to work she was no longer employed.

“I was a loyal and dedicated employee,” Alvarez said. “The hospital stay saved my life, but cost me my job.”

Alvarez, 48, and workers in similar situations are at the forefront of fighting for legislation to get paid sick days from employers.

In the latest battle, Councilmember Julissa Ferreras, advocates and low–wage workers joined Alvarez in front of the restaurant to rally support for a long-running bill that would require city employers give their staff paid sick leave time.

More than a million New York workers lack paid sick days, with many concentrated in food service, retail and health care, according to the NYC Paid Sick Days Campaign.

Originally introduced in 2009 by a Manhattan councilmember, the updated Paid Sick Days Act would require businesses with more than 20 employees give their staff nine paid sick days; companies with five to 20 workers would be required to grant five days annually. Small “mom and pop” businesses would only need to provide five unpaid, but job-protected, sick days.

Although the bill has 37 co-sponsors, Council Speaker Christine Quinn is against it, because of the status of the economy.

“This issue of paid sick leave, it’s a laudable goal,” Quinn said. “But in this economy if we do it right now in the way envisioned in the bill we’re going to put people out of business and we are going to lose jobs. This is not the right time to do it.”

Local store owners are also saying that while the bill may help workers, it would hurt businesses even more, because they can’t afford it.

“Employers here are competing for workers and tend to offer the very best salaries and benefits they can afford,” the Queens Chamber of Commerce said in a letter asking Quinn to oppose the bill. “Most NYC employers offer paid sick leave. Those that do not are concentrated in certain sectors that tend to have low profit margins and must hire replacement workers to cover absentees.”

But still, most say it’s the right thing to do.

“Nobody plans on getting sick,” said Amalia Cisneros, the owner of Centro Naturista Amalias, a small business in Elmhurst. “I always prefer to give my employees time to rest so they have energy to do their job well. This should be the law. It would help to prevent illness and our health comes first.”

The owner of Taqueria El Idolo was unavailable during the rally and repeated phone calls to the restaurant for comment went unanswered as of press time.

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