Will NYC’s Paid Sick Leave Law Actually Affect Restaurant Employees?

A shift-swapping provision may prevent the legislation from helping workers in industries like food service and retail.

New York is the fifth major American city to require paid sick leave. (Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Apr 1, 2013· 2 MIN READ
Willy Blackmore is TakePart’s Food editor.

Two years from today, workers in New York City will be able to take paid sick days.

That comes with a number of caveats, as these things often do: The law will initially only affect businesses with 20 or more employees; if the New York Federal Reserve’s Index of Economic Coindicators is lower on January 1, 2014 than it was on January 1, 2012, which would suggest another economic downturn, the bill will be scrubbed.

Still, the bill appears to be a significant victory for unions and other labor advocates, like Family Values @ Work. Ellen Bravo, the group's Executive Director, tells TakePart that “Nearly a million New Yorkers will no longer have to choose between following doctor’s orders and putting food on the table or keeping the lights on. Making sure that working people have money in their pockets to cover the basics is good economics for all of us.”

Furthermore, the law will make New York the fifth major American city to pass paid sick legislation, following close on the heels of Portland, OR, which passed a similar measure in March. With statewide bills working their was through the legislatures in Vermont and Massachusetts, it would appear that a nationwide trend is developing.

But before labor rights advocates and activists shift their focus to the next debate and the next battleground, it should be noted that for restaurant and other shift workers, like those employed in retail, the status quo might not change at all on April 1, 2014.

That’s because, amongst other compromises, the final bill contains a shift-swapping provision, which would “require restaurant workers and other shift workers to ‘choose’ between picking up an extra shift or taking a paid sick day.” That’s according to a press release issued today by the Restaurant Opportunity Center-New York (ROC-NY), which has been involved in the push for a paid sick leave law since 2009.

Daisy Chung, ROC-NY’s executive director, explained the irony of those quotation marks to TakePart over the phone today, suggesting that the shift-swapping provision is essentially a false choice for workers, “In theory it could be construed as a choice, but in practice, I think everyone is aware of the imbalance of power in the workplace.”

Chung is concerned that employers will push workers to pick up an extra shift to make up for sick days—which would forfeit their right to receive wages for the day they were out ill. And that’s precisely the way restaurant workers—90 percent of whom lack paid sick days—currently deal with taking time off to get over the flu or whatever other infection or virus.

According to New York Department of Labor estimates, 237,000 New Yorkers were employed in the food service industry as of February. It’s one of the largest private-sector industries in the city. Not only will the bill affect a significant number of restaurant workers, but, according to Chung, stories of food service employees going to work despite various sicknesses helped build public and political support for its passage. Which is why the ROC-NY membership is so frustrated by this particular compromise.

Chung points out that in other industries these kinds of practices wouldn’t fly. “We would never ask a lawyer, ‘Can you pick up Tuesday? But come in on Saturday.’ ” But for restaurant workers, the late-night or early-morning scramble to find someone to cover a shift when that fever spikes or when it becomes impossible to leave the confines of the bathroom may still be very much a part of working life in 2014.