The Fight for Paid Sick Leave: A Historical Perspective

In this Friday, Jan. 18 2013 photo, activists hold signs during a rally at New York's City Hall to call for immediate action
In this Friday, Jan. 18 2013 photo, activists hold signs during a rally at New York's City Hall to call for immediate action on paid sick days legislation in light of the continued spread of the flu. An unusually early and vigorous flu season is drawing attention to the cause that has both scored victories and hit roadblocks in recent years: mandatory paid sick leave. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)

As the New York City Council prepares to debate a bill that would require city businesses to grant employees up to five paid sick days a year, it's important for us to separate the rhetoric from the facts, so our city can make a responsible, informed decision.

Opponents have argued that paid sick legislation will force employers to take a range of objectionable actions, from raising prices on consumers and delaying the hiring of new workers, to cutting benefits for existing workers or, worst of all, leaving town all together.

This opposition has become a familiar refrain, despite the fact that:

• Paid sick is a standard benefit for workers in at least 145 countries; • There is little evidence to support such fears in municipalities that require many businesses to provide paid sick, including San Francisco and the District of Columbia ; and • Studies have shown that offering paid sick benefits actually reduces employee turnover and increases productivity.

The truth is that we have been here before. In fact, the history of America is replete with sky-is-falling rhetoric when it comes to advancing the cause of critical workplace reforms. Consider the last 100 years alone. In 1913, two years after one of the worst disasters in New York City history -- the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire which killed 146 laborers, the majority young, immigrant women -- the Associated Industries of New York said that proposed fire code changes designed to protect workers would lead to the "wiping out of industry in this state." In 1915, when New York State first debated a minimum wage law for women and children, opponents insisted that it would "support inefficient workers" and that there was little difference between "charity and paying to a worker more money than he or she could earn in competition with other workers." In 1935, opponents of the Social Security Act believed that its passage would result in a torrent of evils. Representative John Tabor of New York, declared, "Never in the history of the world has any measure been brought in here so insidiously designed so as to prevent business recovery, to enslave workers, and to prevent any possibility of the employers providing work for the people." In 1963, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce spoke out against the Equal Pay Act, stating that it would "eliminate thousands and even hundreds of thousands of job opportunities for women." In 1993, opponents strenuously objected to the Family and Medical Leave Act, which provides for unpaid family leave. John Sloane Jr., president of the National Federation of Independent Business, called family leave benefits "the greatest threats to small business in America." The list goes on and on. But in each case, the truth is inescapable -- the sky did not and will not fall when reasonable steps are taken to protect the rights of workers. Instead, progressive regulation at the federal, state, and city level, protected worker safety, improved our environment, and helped to build a middle class that is the backbone of the greatest economic engine the world has ever known.

Paid sick leave is one more step in this struggle and New York City should join countless other nations in embracing it as a win-win for employees and businesses alike.

Scott M. Stringer is the Manhattan Borough President