Be careful not to sit on the fence with paid sick days
Council Speaker Quinn’s measured approach to paid sick days is wearing thin to the point of transparency, and it may well cost her politically. By holding up a vote until opponents of the bill can produce a piece of unsound research, Quinn is showing too much concern for the sentiments of a constituency that doesn’t have a leg to stand on in the debate: the city’s powerful and well-heeled business groups, such as the Partnership for New York City and the five boroughs’ Chambers of Commerce.
Speaker Quinn should be careful about going out of her way not to offend those interests on this issue. Such a strategy could easily backfire where paid sick days is concerned. National polling research and this month’s high-profile gubernatorial primary in Connecticut provide strong evidence that not only are voters more inclined to support candidates who get behind paid sick days, popular support for the policy is so strong that it can be a political game-changer -- even when an opposing, anti-sick days candidate is backed by big money.
Public interest groups and advocates alike paid close attention to national polling research on paid sick days that came out in June. It showed not only that voters were far more likely to support than oppose a candidate for promoting paid sick days – it revealed that, even after hearing arguments on both side of the issue, there is a forty-point margin in voters’ preference between candidates that support sick days and those who oppose the policy. And rather than supporting a candidate who took a “balanced” position exempting some businesses, voters were more likely to oppose that candidate.
This summer, we got to see how this might play out in a high-profile race when the Democratic candidates for governor in Connecticut took differing positions. Ned Lamont, favored by 17 points in June and famous for his Cinderella run for U.S. Senate against long-time incumbent Joe Lieberman in 2006, ended up losing by that margin (58-42) to Dan Malloy. Lamont, himself a businessman and multi-millionaire, took the position that small businesses should be exempt from paid sick days. Malloy countered with a strong position in support of the law and used it to distinguish himself as the candidate better connected to the concerns of ordinary people:
- “There are certain basic rights that should be afforded to any working person in Connecticut, and paid sick leave is certainly among them,” Malloy said. “It’s wrong that we would penalize workers – salaried or on hourly wage – for being ill.”
What’s more, the arguments against paid sick days are showing themselves to be the same tired rhetoric business groups use to protect the most unscrupulous of their constituents from having to suck it up and do the right thing. Press coverage of the bill before the City Council has unearthed an uncomfortable truth for the opposition: that paid sick days is not a threat to businesses, large or small. Following the last hearing on the issue in May, the Wall Street Journal and Business Week interviewed business groups in San Francisco to see what their experience has been. The local Chamber of Commerce said the cost has been manageable and businesses don’t complain about it. And the restaurant association not only admitted that employee abuse of sick days has not been a problem, but that paid sick days has proved to be “the best public policy for the least cost.” Both groups originally opposed the San Francisco law, putting forth much the same arguments that NYC business groups are using now.
With a veto-proof majority of sponsors for the bill on the City Council, Quinn has even suggested it would not be a good idea for her colleagues to try to bring the bill to a vote without her approval. It’s not clear how long Speaker Quinn can stave off a rebellion in her ranks, but it certainly would not endear her to voters if that happened, nor would it help her enlist her colleagues’ support in winning over constituents in their districts. Between giving credence to paper-thin arguments against paid sick days and the strong resonance of the policy with the general public, Quinn appears to be putting her eggs in the wrong basket.