Miami-Dade’s fight over extending paid sick leave to county contractors happens to fall in the middle of a global pandemic that’s shut down much of the economy over fears more people will catch a virus at work.
The timing is helping fuel the campaign to change county law and require sick leave for employees of private companies providing security guards at Miami International Airport and Miami-Dade’s transit system, along with workers for contractors across county government.
“We know when people show up to work sick, they get other people sick,” said Dr. Lily Ostrer, a doctor at the county’s Jackson hospital system and an advocate of the legislation backed by her union, SEIU. “That’s how pandemics start.”
Opponents call it a financial burden for companies using government dollars to pay workers. They say the extra costs will end up costing jobs along with forcing Miami-Dade to pay more to run its airport, operate buses and trains and provide other services at a time of economic turmoil.
“It’s very difficult for us to quantify what the actual fiscal impact of this legislation will be,” Jennifer Moon, the deputy mayor overseeing budgets, told commissioners during a February hearing on the legislation. “It will increase the cost of the county’s services.”
Commissioners will have a chance to kill the legislation Thursday or advance it to a final vote when the proposed ordinance comes before the Policy Council led by commission Chairwoman Audrey Edmonson.
The legislation sparked an early fight in the 2020 mayoral race, which includes two commissioners on opposite ends of the issue who are also running for the county’s top job.
Sponsor Daniella Levine Cava said the county should be “ashamed” for not making contractors provide sick pay. Rival Esteban “Steve” Bovo said ignoring the proposal’s costs to taxpayers reminded him how a “Bernie Sanders world” would operate.
The rules requiring seven days of paid sick leave a year would apply only to new contracts and exempt companies with fewer than 15 employees.
An analysis by the auditor’s office of the County Commission concluded the ordinance would boost contract costs up to 3 percent. It also cited research showing employers don’t cut wages when required to offer sick leave. The analysis noted the risk of workers feeling compelled to be “present” at work when they don’t have the option to call in sick.
“When coupled with health threats such as coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) presenteeism poses the potential for grave public health consequences,” the report said. “In light of the current pandemic, paid sick leave has come to the forefront of national concern given that many employees without paid sick leave cannot afford to stay home when sick, increasing the likelihood of contagion.”
Hamlet Garcia, a security guard for a firm assigned to Miami-Dade bus stations, joined a press event this week put on by the SEIU, which represents him and other outsourced employees in Miami-Dade.
He described having a high fever in March and being forced to decide between losing a day’s pay or coming to work sick with a symptom considered a tell-tale for COVID-19.
He said he opted to stay home one day, even though the lost hours tossed his budget into turmoil.
“I had to call my credit card companies, because I couldn’t make ends meet,” he said.
His employer, Delta Five Security, said it is temporarily offering paid sick time, but only for workers with COVID-19 symptoms. It also disputed Garcia’s account of missing a day’s work and said he did not tell supervisors he was feeling ill.
The owner, Joe Diaz, said he would welcome offering paid sick time to workers but that the contracts his firm competes for almost always come down to price. By paying more benefits, he’ll lose out to competitors. “That happened to me the other day at a luxury condominium complex in Coral Gables,” he said. “They went with a company paying $9 to $10 an hour. I wanted to pay $12 or $13.”
Because Miami-Dade already requires contractors to pay the county’s living wage to employees, Diaz said the guards working for transit earn more than those assigned to private-sector jobs. Adding a sick-leave requirement would force Delta to charge even more.
“It would add a substantial amount of money to the rate,” he said. “The county is already complaining about the rate being too high.”
That highlights an argument unions and others make for the sick-leave legislation: that once Miami-Dade requires it, bidders will fold the extra costs into their proposed prices and be on an even footing with competitors.
“The county is the one that sets the economics,” said Ana Tinsly, an SEIU spokeswoman. Without a requirement for paid leave, “you’re basically taking the employers who want to do good and asking them to price themselves out of competition.”