Miami-Dade commission rejects sick leave for contractors after Cuba comparisons

·4 min read

Miami-Dade commissioners on Thursday rejected requiring paid sick days for airport security guards and other workers for county contractors, with two board members linking the proposal to the kind of economic mandates that exist in Cuba.

“In countries like Nicaragua, and Venezuela and in Cuba, these are the kind of policies that they begin to implement,” said Commissioner Esteban “Steve” Bovo, a Cuban-American running for Miami-Dade mayor. “People leave those countries because government begins to put their foot on everybody’s throat. ... It’s ridiculous we continue to entertain these kind of policies.”

There was no debate over public health during the proposal’s battering at the meeting of the commission’s Policy Council, the board’s most powerful committee. The legislation failed for a lack of a second when it was time to decide whether the bill should get a hearing before the full commission.

Supporters pushed paid sick time as an obvious selling point for the measure during the coronavirus pandemic, with workplace transmission the primary worry as Miami-Dade prepares to reopen businesses. In early March, Miami-Dade’s coronavirus message on social media was “Feeling under the weather? Stay home.”

“Today’s decision ... to reject paid sick days for contracted workers, including essential security officers and janitors, shows a blatant disregard for public health — especially during the coronavirus pandemic,” said Helene O’Brien, Florida director for the SEIU union, which pushed for the legislation.

The legislation was introduced at the start of 2020, well before Miami-Dade had its first known coronavirus case. It would require all but the smallest companies that win county contracts to provide seven days of paid sick leave for employees.

That would add to the requirements Miami-Dade already imposes for outsourced work, including the 1999 law mandating most workers for those firms earn the county’s living wage, currently $17 an hour.

An early fight in Miami-Dade’s 2020 mayor race

Sponsor Daniella Levine Cava, another commissioner running for mayor, does not sit on the Policy Council led by the board’s chairwoman, Audrey Edmonson. Levine Cava was allowed to speak at the start of the debate and her legislation failed.

“I am deeply offended that it would be suggested that somehow this is a communist ploy. We’re talking about people who are working on our behalf providing basic services,” she said. “Before there even was a coronavirus, they were telling you they were coming to work sick. ... They’re going to the hospital because they’re working until they’re gravely ill.”

Federal contractors must provide paid sick leave to their employees, and 11 states and the District of Columbia require it from private employers. Mayor Carlos Gimenez opposed Levine Cava’s legislation, which exempted contractors with fewer than 15 employees. Gimenez said small firms could game the rules and lower payroll costs by keeping their workforce small enough to be exempt.

The public wasn’t allowed to speak on the sick-leave item during the virtual committee meeting since a hearing was held earlier in the year.

At the SEIU press conference, Hamlet Garcia, a private guard for Miami-Dade bus stations, said he was forced to decide between a smaller paycheck and going to work with a higher fever in March. 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.

‘Give them jobs’

An analysis by the auditor’s office of the County Commission concluded Levine Cava’s ordinance would boost contract costs up to 2.7 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. The legislation would only apply to new contracts.

“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.”

None of the Policy Council’s eight members spoke in favor of the legislation. Commissioner Barbara Jordan, a co-sponsor, moved that it be approved but couldn’t find the second supporter needed for a vote. Commissioner Sally Heyman spoke against it, saying the law could cause contractors to cut payroll.

“I’m concerned about Miami-Dade and helping the people we want to do vending with,” she said. “Cut the bureaucracy, cut the costs. ... And give them jobs.”

Commissioner Rebeca Sosa, who was born in Cuba and fled the dictatorship as a child, described the mandated worker benefit for county contractors as a perilous step for Miami-Dade.

“The day we start telling private companies what they have to do in terms of their employees, then we have a problem,” she said. “I had to risk my life flying from a country that did that.”