Albany County Paid Sick Leave Act dies on the table

The Enterprise — Michael Koff

Michelle Viola Straight, president of the Guilderland Chamber of Commerce, said the problem with the proposed Albany County sick-leave law was how it had been introduced — at the local level. She said that it’s an issue that should be dealt with at the state level.

ALBANY COUNTY — Eleven Democrats sided with management and 10 Republicans on Monday night to vote down, 21 to 17, a proposed law that would have required Albany County employers to provide paid sick time to their workers.  

Had the pared-down proposed law passed, workers employed in Albany County for more than 80 hours in a calendar year would have been able to earn one hour of sick time for every 30 hours worked, with accrued sick time capped at 40 hours. Had a business employed six or more workers, the sick leave would have been paid. If a worker had been employed by a company that had five or fewer employees, then the accrued 40 hours earned would have been unpaid.

In an interview last week, Michelle Viola Straight, president of the Guilderland Chamber of Commerce, which encouraged business owners in town to speak out against the bill, told The Enterprise that the problem with the bill was how it had been introduced — at the county level.

She said that was “not a good approach.” Paid sick leave, she said, “should be looked at, at the state level.”

Asked if she supported paid sick leave at the state level, Viola Straight said she was “open to exploring” the idea.

At the June 10 public hearing, business owners and business-association representatives said that passing paid sick leave would be government overreach, as well as an added and onerous cost that only employers in Albany County would have to bear, which would place them at a competitive disadvantage against businesses in other counties.

“This is not about paid sick leave. This is about the government telling a business or non-profit what their sick policy must be. These unfair mandates are going to harm part-time job opportunities for teens and students and lead to more automation and fewer jobs,” Mark Grimm said in a statement released after the bill was defeated. Grimm, a Republican, represents part of Guilderland in the county legislature.

In Albany County, as of 2016, there were 4,688 businesses with between one and four workers, according to the United States Census Bureau, accounting for about half of all the businesses in the county, but employing only between 2.6 percent and 10 percent of all workers.

The bill itself claimed that 40 percent of workers — which, using the most recent census data, would be about 72,475 workers — in Albany County did not have access to paid sick time. The group that wrote the study cited in the bill told The Enterprise last year that the 40-percent number may have gone down a bit, to as low as 36 percent. Further still, the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics puts the number of workers in New York State without paid sick leave closer to 27 percent.

Anguish crept into her voice as Democrat Victoria Plotsky on Wednesday explained why she voted against paid sick leave. Plotsky, who represents parts of New Scotland and Bethlehem in the county legislature, said that it had been “tough to cast the vote on Monday night,” and that the issue had been “very polarizing in the community.”

She understood both sides of the argument, she said, the priests and ministers who said it was the right thing to do, but also the not-for-profits that operate on shoestring budgets and who could really be affected by the law.

Plotsky said that she raised her concern early on about not-for-profits, saying that she’d like to see a carve-out for the organizations so that their sick leave would be unpaid, but, she said, that compromise had been rebuked.

She had other issues with the bill as well.

She wondered if paid sick leave could be phased in like paid family leave had been at the state level; could the number of workers who receive unpaid sick leave be increased from five or fewer to 15 or fewer to help small businesses; could it be implemented like the styrofoam ban, starting with the county’s larger employers (the styrofoam ban began with chain restaurants) and then rolling in smaller businesses.

Plotsky also said that employers are dealing with an increase in the minimum wage as well as the implementation of paid family leave, so, when paid sick leave was introduced, she said, she had thought: “This is too much, too fast.”

And so, she ultimately came to the conclusion that paid sick leave needed to be done at the state level because implementation on a county-by-county basis could lead to a spider’s web of rules, statutes, and regulations.

Mark Emanation, a senior field coordinator for the Capital District Area Labor Federation, told The Enterprise last week that paid sick leave was a “basic human right,” adding, “We believe that working people have the right, if they’re sick, to take a day off.”

There are places in the country that have instituted paid-sick-leave laws, Emanation said, and the “sky hasn’t fallen.”

Over 30 states, counties, and cities have passed paid-sick-leave laws; however, that number includes cities located in states that have passed laws. For example, the state of California adopted a paid-sick-leave law in 2014; seven cities in the state have also adopted their own paid-sick-leave laws.

In New York State, Westchester County and New York City have adopted paid-sick-leave laws.

NYC’s law

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 its passage, according to an analysis by the Center for Economic and Policy Research, a liberal-leaning think tank.

The report was conducted between October 2015 and 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.”

“Geography plays a role in social policy,” Plotsky said.

New York City is in a different geographic situation from Albany County, she said, it’s a massive metro area where there is less of a chance of businesses relocating. Albany County, however, borders Saratoga County, which Plotsky said has said: “Don’t worry, we’ll never pass paid sick leave.”

Although the Albany County bill was defeated, labor and its allies, it would appear, won’t soon forget how legislators voted.

“I’m going to be 62,” Emanation said, “but my memory is working better than it ever has in my life and we’re not going to forget who helped and who didn’t help on this.”

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