The Albany County Paid Sick Leave Act: Business and workers spar over whose health matters most

The Enterprise – H. Rose Schneider

Elizabeth James of Albany on Tuesday night speaks in favor of a proposed Albany County law that would allow workers to earn paid sick time. James said that last year she lost her job after missing work for nearly a week after when she got sick with the flu and infected her two children, whom she then had to care for.

ALBANY COUNTY – Elizabeth James was one of the millions of Americans who got sick with the flu this winter.

She could not get out of bed, she said; her body hurt and she could barely speak. She called work one day this past winter to inform her employer that she would not be able to work her next shift.

In New York State, there are about 127,000 laboratory-confirmed cases of influenza this flu season, according to the state’s Department of Health.

The following day, James said, her 3-year-old son and 7-month-old baby caught the flu, forcing her to stay home for an additional three days to take care of them. She lost her job, she said.

James was one of 40-plus speakers Tuesday at a public hearing on an Albany County bill that would allow workers to earn paid sick time.

The speakers were about evenly divided as business owners and leaders of financially strapped not-for-profits opposed the bill while religious leaders and workers spoke in favor of it.

After she lost her job, James was late paying her rent and electric bill, and continues to struggle with getting back on track, she said.

“Having paid sick days,” she said, “would mean a lot for me and my family. Getting sick is not something you can ever plan for. Passing the law is the right thing to do for workers in Albany County.”

“People should not have to choose between showing up to work sick or falling behind on their bills,” James said to the packed legislative chambers.

A study cited in the proposed law says that 40 percent of workers in Albany County lack access to paid sick time. Jessica Milli, study director for the Institute for Women's Policy Research, the group that put out the report, told The Enterprise that the 40-percent number may have gone down a bit, maybe to 36 percent or 38 percent, since it’s been a while since the report was put out. “But without running the numbers I couldn’t give a definitive answer,” she wrote in an email.

The Albany County Paid Sick Leave Act would let a worker who is employed in Albany County for more than 80 hours in a calendar year on a part- or full-time basis accrue one hour of sick time for every 30 hours worked.

For businesses with more than 10 employees, a worker could earn up 72 hours of paid sick time; for businesses that have between six and 10 employees, workers can earn 40 hours; and, for businesses with five employees or fewer, a worker could earn up to 40 hours of unpaid sick time in the first year of the proposed law’s implementation.

After that, the employee would be able to earn an increasing number of paid sick-time hours, until, after three years, the worker could earn 40 hours of  paid sick-time.

While the Bureau of Labor Statistics claims 236,900 workers in Albany County, the Census Bureau claims 181,194 workers.

The considerable difference between the data is related to what is and isn’t included in the sets. For example, the Bureau of Labor Statistics includes data from: all levels of government, agricultural production, pensions, and trusts; the Census Bureau excludes most government establishments, but includes hospitals, and Federal Reserve Banks.

An additional 65,000 workers in Albany County could gain access to earned paid sick time, using census data.

If the proposed law were to pass, Albany County would be the 44th jurisdiction in the country with a paid sick-day law, joining 31 cities, 10 states, and two counties.

Opposition  

David Brown, the president and chief executive officer of the Capital District YMCA, at the public hearing on Tuesday night said that his organization is opposed to proposed Local Law C. “While the intentions are good,” he said, “the consequences are not.”

In Albany County, Brown said, his organization operates four YMCAs, 18  after-school programs, one early-childhood center, and seven camps that represents 650 employees, 500 of which are part-time. Brown said that, if the proposed law were to pass, in Albany County alone, there would be an additional cost of $500,000 to the Capital District YMCA.

“Which would be incredibly burdensome, and would be something that would have to be passed on to families,” he said.

Mark Eagan, the president and chief executive officer of the Capital Region Chamber of Commerce, told The Enterprise that his organization is against the proposed law because it would put Albany County at a competitive disadvantage.

In its memorandum of opposition, the chamber stated that it “believes that this legislation would have both direct and indirect costs to businesses. If adopted, the bill would increase the cost of goods and services for consumers and limit the ability of businesses to grow in the Capital Region.”

New York State, Eagan said, continually ranks among the worst states in the country to do business, and, Albany County is just one part of the broader, Capital Regional economy, so, he asks, “Why would we want to make it that much more difficult to do business in Albany County” by requiring employers to include the additional cost of paid sick time?

“Why would we want something that applies only to Albany County?” Eagan asks. “It makes Albany County less competitive against Saratoga, Rensselaer, and Schenectady [counties].”

Then, there is the philosophical component of the chamber’s opposition.

Employers and employees, said Eagan, are better suited to determine salary and benefits, a local government should not be involved in that process. “There is a reason that it is called the private sector; the free-enterprise system best runs when it is left to run on its own,” he said.

Sponsors

Some of the proposed law’s sponsors disagree with the chamber’s view of Albany County being placed at a competitive disadvantage and the role of government in employer-employee relationships.

Samuel Fein, a Democrat from the sixth legislative district in Albany, said that he didn’t think businesses would leave Albany County because of the proposed regulation. It is a reasonable law, he said, and was written in a way to be fair to small business.

Fein pointed out that the Capital District Black Chamber of Commerce supported the proposed law. That chamber, he said, cares about both business and community, and, said, “The Black Chamber of Commerce is concerned about the overall approach, and everyone who is apart of that.”

Fein said that the county should step into that relationship, and, “that it is actually the role of government, to step in and protect workers.”

Minimum wage, overtime, and child labor laws are all examples, he said, of government having to step in to protect workers because business would not.

“It’s not profitable,” said Douglas Bullock, a Democrat from the seventh legislative district in Albany, of business adding benefits like paid sick-time for workers. “When they’re looking at their bottom line, the more they can squeeze out of employees – that’s their ideology – the better off they are.”

Bullock said that it looks like a close vote when it comes to passage, but said when the benefits to working people are understood, especially for part-time workers, people will support it.

Elsewhere, it’s the law already

Connecticut was the first state in the country to have a statewide paid-sick leave law. It went into effect on Jan. 1, 2012.

The law allows employees to accrue one hour of paid sick leave for each 40 hours worked.

“It brought paid sick leave to large numbers of part-time workers in the state for the first time, especially in industries like hospitality and retail,” according to an analysis of the law by the Center for Economic and Policy Research, a left-leaning economic policy think-tank.

The CEPR report was conducted between June and September 2013, a year-and-a-half after the law went into effect, and is based on a survey of 251 Connecticut employers covered by the law.

The concerns of some businesses – that the new law would invite worker abuse or would place a heavy burden on the employer – according to the analysis, were mostly unfounded. “Instead, the impact of the new law on business has been modest,” the report says.  

Eighty-six percent of respondents, according to the analysis, reported no known cases of sick-leave abuse, while 6 percent reported only one to three cases of abuse.

Of Connecticut’s 1.7 million employed workers, the CEPR analysis estimated, between 200,000 and 400,000 were now covered by the new earned paid sick leave law.

“The number is relatively low because the law has many carve-outs,” the report said.

The Connecticut law allows for exemptions that the proposed Albany County law would not.

The Connecticut law requires employers with 50 or more employees (businesses that employ fewer than 50 workers are not covered by the law) within the state to provide non-exempt “service workers” with paid-sick leave. The law also excludes most manufacturing establishments and nationally chartered not-for-profit organizations.

Prior to the paid sick-leave law’s passage, 88.5 percent of the employers who were surveyed by the report’s authors had offered at least five paid sick days, a significant number to be sure.

But what the report did find was that there was a substantial change in the “proportion of employees with access to paid sick leave as a result of the new law” in certain industries.

About half to two-thirds of employers in the health, education, and social services; hospitality; and retail industries reported that “more employees had paid sick leave at the time of the survey than before the new state law took effect, a statistically significant finding.”

A study by the Employment Policies Institute, a conservative non-profit think tank, found that about one-third of the 86 Connecticut businesses that it surveyed had reduced other employee benefits to account for the law’s costs, one-fifth had raised prices, and about one-fifth had reduced hours or staffing levels.

In June 2013, New York City passed an earned sick time law that does not allow for the employer carve-outs that Connecticut's law does.

The Earned Sick Time Act took effect in April 2014, and covers workers employed in New York City private-sector companies and not-for-profit organizations with five or more employees; employees of companies with one to four workers are entitled to unpaid sick leave.

Under the law, workers accrue paid sick leave at a rate of one hour for every 30 hours worked.

About 3.9 million workers are covered by New York City’s law; 1.4 million of those workers did not have access to paid sick time prior to the its passage, according to a separate analysis by the Center for Economic and Policy Research.

The report was conducted between October 2015 to March 2016, and is based on a survey of 352 New York City employers covered by the law.

“The vast majority of employers responding to our survey (almost 85 percent) reported that the new law had no effect on their overall business costs,” the report’s authors note.

Critics of the law, according to the report, argued that it would lead to a loss of jobs. This did not happen.

In the two years before the law took effect, April 2012 to April 2014, New York City added 207,400 jobs; after implementation, over the next two years 230,200 jobs were added. “There is no evidence that employers in New York City have closed businesses or relocated jobs in response to the policy change,” the report states.

According to the CEPR analysis, New York City’s share of employment in the larger metropolitan area increased from 62.91 percent to 63.37 percent, “suggesting that employers have not shifted jobs to nearby counties not subject to the paid sick leave law.”

This study was brought up to Eagan, who said that, Albany County can’t be compared to New York City. “You are talking about an entire metro area – you are not talking about: You cross the street and you are in a different county, where the rules will be different,” he said.

A report by the Freedom Foundation, a libertarian think tank, examined 10 studies on paid sick leave from four jurisdictions – San Francisco; Washington, D.C.; Connecticut; and Seattle – and found that five of the 10 studies were conducted by paid-sick-leave advocates, two were by paid-sick-leave opponents, and three were conducted by city auditors.

Most firms in the examined studies, according to the report’s author, Max Nelsen, voluntarily offered paid sick leave without being required to do so by law. “Each of the six studies that examined whether employers provided workers with paid sick leave before implementation of a mandatory paid sick leave law found that a majority did so, with the rate ranging from 50 to 89 percent,” Nelsen writes.

Helping those on the lowest rung

Eagan is not opposed to earned paid sick time, but, he said, “If issues like this are going to be dealt with, then they need to be dealt with at the federal level.” That would create a level playing field across the country, he said.

“In case people don’t notice, what we do at our level often impacts what goes on above our level,” said Lynne Lekakis, a Democrat from the eighth legislative district in Albany. “That’s truly the only way it seems to happen.”

Lekakis said that often change comes from the bottom up, and cited Albany County’s passage in December 2017 of a law banning salary history from job applicants. The state, she said, has taken up the legislation only recently. Governor Andrew Cuomo in April proposed legislation to institute a salary history ban.

To make any kind change, Lekakis said, “You start where you are – this is where we are. This is what impact we have, we can have impact on the people in our county.”

The proposed law’s sponsors say passage is the right and fair thing to do, especially for the lower-wage workers in Albany County, which is about a quarter of the county’s workers, who are already struggling.

According to the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey, in Albany County, in 2016, about 17,000 workers in retail had a median income of $19,202, and about 14,000 workers in food service, arts, entertainment, recreation, and accomodation had a median income of $13,080.

In Albany County, the living wage, “the hourly rate that an individual must earn to support their family,” according to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Living Wage Calculator is $11.78 per hour, or $24,502 per year.

An annual salary of $24,502 per year, according to the MIT calculator, is enough for one adult to cover the costs of his or her basic needs: food, insurance premiums, health care, housing, and transportation.

If a single adult has a child, he or she would have to earn a living wage of $26.71 per hour, or $55,550 per year, to get by. According to the most recent census data, there are about 126,000 households in Albany County; about 11,ooo of those households are headed by a single parent with children.

Industry-wide, 38 percent of retail workers and 62 percent of food-service and accommodation workers do not have access to paid sick leave, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

When workers don’t have access to paid sick leave, public health problems get worse, according to a report from Harvard Law School examining implementing paid sick leave in Mississippi,

Because the income of low-wage workers is contingent on physical presence in the workplace, the report states, those workers feel pressure to go to work even when they are sick; this is known as “presenteeism.”

“As a society, we should have a minimum standard of living that we make sure that all workers have,” Fein said. His sixth district is majority-minority, a lot of low-income residents, a lot of people struggling, he said. His constituents are overwhelmingly in support of the proposed law and would be helped by its passage, he said. 

More Regional News

  • Over 25,000 people have signed up on the county’s online pre-registration tool for COVID-19 vaccination appointments; 19,000 are Albany County residents. “It overwhelmed us,” said Albany County Executive Daniel McCoy. “It was a lot more people pre-registering than I imagined … It really shows the need.”

  • Nursing homes in the United States have seen the lowest number of new COVID-19 cases since the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services started tracking cases in May 2020, suggesting that the vaccines are working.

  • The Mohawk Hudson Land Conservancy is looking to preserve approximately 280 acres of land in the town of New Scotland — 40 acres owned by the village of Voorheesville and about 240 acres of the Heldeberg Workshop.

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