On Thursday, June 27, members of the New York City Council voted to override Mayor Michael Bloomberg's veto of the City's Earned Sick Time Act (the Act). New York City thus became the latest (and the most populous) of a growing number of localities – including San Francisco; Washington, DC; Seattle; Portland, ME; and the State of Connecticut – to impose mandatory sick leave obligations on employers.
The NYC Earned Sick Time Act: An Overview
Virtually all private sector employers within the geographic boundaries of New York City are covered by the Act's provisions. Notable exceptions include a limited number of manufacturing entities, as well as employers whose workers are governed by a collective bargaining agreement that expressly waives the Act's provisions while at the same time providing those workers with a comparable benefit.
The Act will eventually cover more than one million employees, providing each of them with up to five days of paid leave each year. In its first phase of implementation, currently scheduled to take effect on April 1, 2014, the Act will apply only to those employers that employ 20 or more workers in New York City. The second phase of implementation will begin 18 months later (currently, October 15, 2015), at which time the Act will expand to those employers with at least 15 City-based employees. The Act will require employers with fewer than 15 City-based employees to provide their employees with unpaid, rather than paid, sick time.
New York City-based employees (regardless of whether they are employed on a full- or part-time, temporary or seasonal basis) who work more than 80 hours during a calendar year will accrue paid sick time at a minimum rate of one hour for each 30 hours worked. The Act caps mandatory accrual of paid sick time at 40 hours per calendar year (the equivalent of one five-day workweek). Although the Act provides only for a statutory minimum, employers are free to provide their employees with additional paid time if they so desire. Accrual of paid leave time begins on the first day of employment, but employers may require employees to first work as many as 120 days before permitting them to make use of the time they have accrued.
The Act specifies that employees will be able to use their accrued time for absences from work that occur because of: (1) the employee's own mental or physical illness, injury or health condition, or the need for the employee to seek preventive medical care; (2) care of a family member in need of such diagnosis, care, treatment or preventive medical care; or (3) closure of the place of business because of a public health emergency, as declared by a public health official, or the employee's need to care for a child whose school or childcare provider has been closed because of such a declared?emergency.
Although the Act allows employees to carry over accrued but unused leave time from year to year, it does not require employers to permit the use of more than 40 hours of paid leave each year. Likewise, it does not require employers to pay out accrued, but unused, sick leave upon an employee's separation from employment.
Employers that have already implemented paid leave policies – such as policies that provide for paid time off (PTO), personal days and/or vacation – that provide employees with an amount of paid leave time sufficient to meet the Act's accrual requirements may not be required to provide their employees with anything more once the Act takes effect. As long as an employer's current policy or policies allow the paid leave in question to be used "for the same purposes and under the same conditions as paid sick leave," nothing more is necessary.
The Act Requires Proper Notice to Both Employees and Employers
Once the Act is implemented, employers will be required to inform new employees of their rights when they are hired, and will have to post additional notices in the workplace (suitable notices will be made available for download on the Department of Consumer Affairs website). In addition to providing information about the Act's substantive provisions, employees must also be informed of the Act's provision against retaliation and how they may lodge a complaint.
Likewise, an employer may require reasonable notice from employees who plan to make use of their accrued time. The Act defines such notice as seven days in the case of a foreseeable situation, and as soon as is practicable when the need for leave could not have been?foreseen.
Penalties and Enforcement
The Act will be enforced by the City's Department of Consumer Affairs. Because the Act contains no private right of action, an employee's only avenue for redress will be through the Consumer Affairs complaint process. Employees alleging such a violation have 270 days within which to file a complaint. Penalties for its violation are potentially steep; they include: (1) the greater of $250 or three times the wages that should have been paid for each instance of sick time taken; (2) $500 for each instance of paid sick time unlawfully denied to an employee, or for which an employee is unlawfully required to work additional hours without mutual consent; (3) full compensation, including lost wages and benefits, for each instance of unlawful retaliation other than discharge from employment, along with $500 and equitable relief; and (4) $2,500 for each instance of unlawful termination of employment, along with equitable relief (including potential reinstatement).
Employers found to have violated the Act may also face fines from the City of up to $500 for the first violation, $750 for a second violation within two years of the first, and $1,000 for any subsequent violation within two years of the one before. Additionally, employers that willfully fail to provide the required notice of the Act's substantive provisions will be fined $50 for each employee who did not receive such notice.
The Act, meanwhile, does not prohibit employers from requiring that such an employee provide documentation from a licensed health care professional to demonstrate the necessity for the amount of sick leave taken. Employers are free under the Act to discipline employees, up to and including termination, who take sick leave for an improper purpose. They are prohibited, however, from inquiring as to the nature of an employee's injury, illness or condition.