The New York City Council on Wednesday passed a bill expanding workers’ right to paid sick leave in New York, and Mayor Bill de Blasio quickly said that he’d make it the first bill he signs into law. While expected for several weeks, the move underscore how much has changed not just on the west side of City Hall, where the mayor hangs out, but in Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito’s office and the Council chambers on the east wing as well.
The previous Council speaker, Christine Quinn, refused for years to bring the sick-leave bill up for a vote even though it had more than enough votes to pass. As the mayoral campaign got underway and the pressure on her increased she agreed to a watered-down version of the bill that applied only to businesses with fifteen or more employees and included implementation delays, carve-outs for manufacturing and a self-destruct button (the law wouldn’t take effect unless certain economic conditions were met). Even that thin gruel was too rich for Mayor Bloomberg, who vetoed the bill and was overidden.
The new version does away with all the half-measures and applies to firms with five or more workers. It also permits time off to care for a close relative who is sick. The bill’s backers and the mayor did amend their original expansion proposal to give a grace period to smaller firms.
The funny thing about the ideological alignment of the mayor, the speaker, most of the Council and many of the advocacy groups that spent the Bloomberg years clamoring for change is that a measure that, by City Hall’s estimate, covers another 500,000 people is going to become law with so little drama. The same won’t be said of the UPK tax, the minimum wage or any of the other ambitious hopes the de Blasio administration has pinned on Albany.
But the low-volume finale for sick-leave expansion is a fitting end for a four-year debate about a right that, let’s face it, most everyone has and takes for granted. Like the eight-hour day, weekends and other hard-wired aspects of decent working life, in a few years we’ll all look back and wonder why this was such a big deal.
And that has implications not just for sick leave but for other social issues: when you close down the silly debates, you change the parameters of what the civic sphere can discuss.