I felt sick when I heard about Felix Trinidad, a 34-year-old man who died in July after working through months with stomach cancer. Trinidad worked at Golden Farm, a Brooklyn market that sells produce and groceries. And he was so worried about losing his job, he didn't take time off to go to the doctor to get a diagnosis until he had no chance of beating the disease.
Why would someone so sick soldier, working six days a week, 12 hours a day with so little apparent concern for his own life?
Trinidad, a Mexican immigrant, had worked at Golden Farm for 12 years. Yet, along with some 1.1 million workers in New York City--and nearly 40 million nationwide--he didn't have even a single paid sick day.
Taking a day off could have cost Trinidad his job, and he had two young children and a wife to support. So even when he vomited blood, he kept clocking in and lifting crates. His employer deducted four hours of pay from his paycheck when he finally gave in to his suffering and went to the emergency room.
Who's to blame for the way Trinidad died--working through pain and exhaustion, and missing a potentially life-saving diagnosis for fear of losing his income?
I feel complicit. I shop at Golden Farm, which is conveniently located between my house and my kids' school. I've gone there for years because of the low prices. I never thought of myself as someone who would endanger another person's life just to save a little on milk and mangoes. But, in a sense, I guess I am.
In another sense, Golden Farm, which has been cited for numerous violations, including failure to pay overtime, bears some of the responsibility. This is clearly how New York Communities for Change, which is organizing a boycott of the market, sees it. (The group has also set up a page where you can donate to Trinidad's wife and children.)
Looking beyond this one unscrupulous employer, there is also the problem of the playing field on which Golden Farm operates. The store has to compete with others that likely don't provide paid sick days either. That's because there is no law requiring them to do so. For this sad state of affairs, I blame New York City Council speaker Christine Quinn.
Quinn, who is hoping to become the city's next mayor, has resolutely refused to bring a paid sick days bill to a vote, despite the fact that Council members and the public overwhelmingly support the legislation. The legislation would require businesses with 20 or more employees to provide nine paid sick days each year. Employers with at least five employees would have to give those workers five days of paid sick leave annually.
The Council Speaker has dodged paid leave legislation since an earlier version came before the Council in 2009. Even while a campaign and petition spearheaded by Gloria Steinem and hundreds of other prominent New Yorkers targeted her, Quinn has refused to let her fellow elected officials speak for their constituents on sick days.
But the responsibility for Felix Trinidad's death goes beyond local politicians and the petty deals they make in the hopes of ascending to higher office.
Cities and states have made a valiant effort to protect sick workers. Connecticut passed a paid sick leave, as have Seattle, San Francisco, and Washington, DC. And campaigns are underway in dozens of other places.
Momentum is gaining on the issue, but too slowly. Clearly we need a national law that requires employer to provide paid time off for sick employees. After all, that's how at least 127 other countries--including every single developed nation--does it.
It makes obvious sense. People who don't have sick days-- including 90 percent of restaurant workers--are more likely to go to work sick, and when they do, to spread their illnesses.
We did, in fact, have a national paid sick leave bill ready for a vote when President Obama came into office. But, although the President supported it, Congress wasn't on his side and, like New York City's bill, our national proposal never came up for a vote.
Now, neither political camp in this election mentions the brutal bind facing workers like Felix Trinidad, who can lose their jobs if they call in sick or lose their lives if they don't.