As Working Families Take White House Stage, Paid Sick Leave Battle Continues


Get Sick, Get Fired: America's Low-Wage Workers Push Back

At the White House Summit on Working Families, one bright spot could be the advance of paid sick leave -- a benefit not offered by most newly created jobs.

June 23, 2014

As the White House convenes its summit on the issues facing working families this week, it’s easy to feel discouraged. The proposals topping the agenda–paid leave, flexible work, childcare–are all great ideas. The problem is they’re the same great ideas advocates have been suggesting for years—decades, even.

Sure, there’s been more recognition of the need for early education. And it’s huge that, over the past ten years, California, New Jersey and Rhode Island have instituted state paid family leave programs. But the United States still lags behind the rest of the developed world when it comes to making life more livable for working families. Though there’s been some progress, it’s achingly slow.

There is one front on which the work/life war has been escalating in recent years, however, one issue that has regularly bubbled over into legislative activity and news stories, while the rest have continued to simmer: paid sick days. Proposals allowing workers to earn paid time off to use when they’re sick or caring for a sick child have whipped through city councils and state legislatures. Paid-sick-leave laws have passed in the State of Connecticut as well as the District of Columbia; in Portland, Oregon; Newark, New Jersey; Jersey City; San Francisco; Seattle, and New York City. After Bill de Blasio became mayor of New York, a strengthened version of the law passed there. According to the mayor, it covers an additional 500,000 workers.

Even in some places where proposals to make employers provide paid sick leave haven’t yet become law (Florida, California, Vermont and Massachusetts, among others) paid-sick-leave proposals have set off fiery battles that are clearly about much more than a little time off. With battles looming in almost two dozen cities and states nationwide, proponents have set the course for progress on other work/life issues, explaining that paid-sick-days legislation is a matter of basic dignity. Meanwhile, the fight over these bills has become a fight about the nature of democracy.


Famous for its progressive politics, overeducated baristas and underemployed youth population, San Francisco was perhaps not surprisingly the birthplace of the American paid sick days movement. The city’s law passed as a ballot initiative in 2006, after a group called Young Workers United joined with the Chinese Progressive Association, SEIU’s Committee of Interns and Residents, parents’ advocates and others to take on the issue. No other place in the country had a paid-sick-leave law on the books, so the idealistic crew, many of whom were in their twenties, drafted their own, drawing on their personal experiences in low-wage jobs without benefits.

The result was a straightforward provision that many other local campaigns have since used as a model: Employees would get an hour of paid sick time for every 30 hours worked. Though other locales would ultimately make the smallest businesses and part-time workers exempt (Connecticut’s law has the biggest carve-out yet, applying only to companies that employ 50 or more “service workers”), San Francisco’s ordinance applies to all workers.

So far, laws guaranteeing paid sick days--or earned sick time, as it’s sometimes called--have only passed in solidly blue areas. Seattle’s went through the first time it reached a vote, buoyed by the support of many progressive business owners. And Portland’s, which went into effect in January, was enacted with the unanimous support of its city council. In Connecticut, New York City, Jersey City and Newark, the Working Families Party had an important role in passing sick days, as did other advocates representing parents, labor and low-wage workers.

But the politics of paid sick days aren’t always what you might expect. Note that, for years, the roadblock to a law in New York City was then-City Council President Christine Quinn, a liberal Democrat who has an activist background (but who was straining to maintain her ties to then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a pro-business independent, and a mostly Republican business lobby, as she eyed her own run for mayor). Philadelphia’s Mayor Michael Nutter, who has vetoed that city’s paid-sick-leave bill twice, is also a Democrat. (Nutter, it should be noted, recently announced the creation of a task force on paid sick days that’s due to submit recommendations to the mayor and city council in December.)

This isn’t just a left-on-left battle, though. Most voters support paid sick days, including a healthy majority of independents and Republicans. In an effort to dodge that consensus, paid-sick-days opponents have crafted legislation that would invalidate protections before they had the chance to pass into law. Republican governors in Arizona, Louisiana, Florida, Mississippi, Tennessee, Kansas, Wisconsin and Oklahoma have signed such “preemption” bills into law, keeping the number of laws preventing paid sick days measures close to the number of laws securing them.

AP Photo/Mary Altaffer

In this Friday, Jan. 18 2013 photo, Emilio Palaguachi, center, speaks during a rally at New York's City Hall to call for immediate action on paid sick days legislation in light of the continued spread of the flu. An unusually early and vigorous flu season is drawing attention to the cause that has both scored victories and hit roadblocks in recent years: mandatory paid sick leave.

The most galvanizing argument for granting sick workers paid time off may be that, if you don’t, they’re likely to work anyway. When their jobs involve food or the direct care of other people, this is not only disgusting, but dangerous. A June study from the CDC traces outbreaks of norovirus, the most common stomach bug, to infected food preparation workers. Activists have made smart use of this gross-out factor, accelerating their campaigns in flu season and waving “No Boogers in My Burgers” and “Do you want snot with that?” signs at demonstrations.

The idea of solving this problem with paid sick days is hardly new. Scandinavian countries had laws guaranteeing paid time off for sick workers going back to the late 1800s. Paid sick time became more or less universal in the rest of Europe by the mid-1960s. And, at this point, the vast majority of both rich and poor countries require employers to offer the benefit.

In the U.S., it’s been a different story. However dire their circumstances, before this wave of legislation, workers here have never had a law protecting their right to stay home with pay when they were sick. Yet, somehow, in relatively crummy economic times, over a period when the unemployment rate hasn’t dipped below seven percent, advocates have recently begun to convince the American public that the plight of workers without paid sick time is a crisis. The nature of the workplace dilemma hadn’t changed, but clearly something else had.


At a demonstration for paid sick leave in Seattle on July 27, 2011, a person dressed as "Cyrus the Virus" makes his case.

Lucy McMullen, who works at the Charles Sumner elementary school in Boston, has, along with other school nurses, one of the best windows into this mysterious shift. Sick kids often spend many hours—and sometimes the entire school days—in her small, first-floor office because their parents are unable to get off work to pick them up. (Most paid-sick-leave laws allow parents to use sick days for tending to ill children.)

McMullen has only a single cot, so the sick kids sometimes have to squish together while they wait. “One kid might be lying on the cot, another on the end of it, then there’s also an upright chair and some mats,” says McMullen. “It can get tight.”

With women making up 47 percent of the labor force, more than half of all kids have no parent at home during the day. So when they get sick, parents are often faced with a cruel choice: to send them to school, to leave them home alone, or to lose income and potentially their jobs. In the past five years, women’s advocates and, critically, funders have begun to home in on this dilemma.

“We’ve come to the conclusion that workplace reform and reproductive choice are equally important to women’s equity,” says Lisa Guide, associate director of the Rockefeller Family Fund. Though women are more likely to be directly hurt by the lack of paid sick days, the problem hinders the whole nation, says Guide. “Having built-in rules that by definition make anyone who’s a caregiver a less than ideal worker means that we have a much smaller middle class than we could have, much less economic security, much less ability as a country to grow our economy.”

Gale Brewer, who was the lead sponsor of New York City’s paid-sick-days bill and counts feminist politicians Bella Abzug and Shirley Chisholm among her influences, says she was surprised by the outpouring of support from women and women’s groups. Their demonstrations and public letters to the editor, as well as some stern words from feminist leader Gloria Steinem were key to the measure’s success. “We couldn’t have known how much it’d take off.”


Opponents of paid sick days often rest their argument on the weak economy, insisting that we can’t afford to ask more of businesses when times are tight and jobs scarce. That argument may have helped bring about the failure of federal paid-sick-leave legislation when it was introduced in 2009, right after the worst of the financial crisis. But Congress also failed to pass the “Healthy Families Act” when it was first introduced in 2004, economically happier times. Still, both political processes helped build support for a federal paid-sick-leave law. And now, in the wake of the downturn, the loss of decent employment opportunities that came with it have powered the recent surge of interest in the benefit.

The vast majority of jobs lost since 2007 paid well and came with good benefits, including paid sick days. But since then, most of the jobs that have been added are low-wage (paying less than $13.83 an hour, according to the National Employment Law Project), more than 80 percent of which don’t come with a single paid sick day. So, while the economy has, in one sense, been recovering in the wake of the recession, the number of people who have no paid time to care for themselves and their families has actually been ballooning.

What happens to this swelling new crop of low-wage workers may be determined by the ultimate outcome of the struggle over paid sick days. Already, some 80 percent have no paid sick leave (compared to 40 percent of the overall workforce), a situation that presents them with impossible choices. Consider Tonisha Howard in Milwaukee, who was fired after taking her two-year-old son to the emergency room for a severe asthma attack. Or Felix Trinidad in Brooklyn, who faced a similarly unthinkable dilemma: He could continue working at Golden Farms grocery store despite his enduring stomach pain or to go to the doctor—and risk being fired or losing income, which supported his wife and children. Trinidad did eventually go to the doctor, but it was too late. He died of stomach cancer last year at age 34.

Becoming the public face for such inhumane working conditions is, for obvious reasons, politically unwise. Consider what happened in the 2010 Democratic primary for Connecticut governor. Before the race, Ned Lamont, a wealthy former businessman, was known as a darling of the left. But when he came out against paid sick days in a bid for the center, his opponent, Dan Malloy, used the opportunity to paint Lamont as out-of-touch millionaire. In the final two weeks of the race, Malloy’s campaign ran a TV ad slamming Lamont’s position agains paid sick days. Seven months later, then-governor Malloy signed the first state-level paid-sick-leave law.


Understandably, opponents of paid sick days have preferred to focus on the business case, highlighting dollars and jobs rather than people. Requiring employers to provide paid time off can raise their costs, including those incurred for tracking accrued hours and additional wages. While the exact amount at stake has been the subject of hot debate (for New York City alone, the difference between the cost estimate determined by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research and that of the Partnership for New York City was more than $450 million), there is little question that providing paid sick days cost employers something. According to a 2009 study of San Francisco’s law conducted by the Urban Institute, a sizable minority of 26 businesses there reduced vacation time, raises, bonuses or other benefits when they implemented paid sick leave. And, in a survey of employers in Connecticut published this year, 10 percent reported that paid sick days increased their payroll costs by three percent or more. As a result, 15 percent increased their prices and 10 percent reduced employee hours.

While these new laws undeniably brought a small amount of change and new costs to a minority of employers, the gloomier prediction—that these costs would kill jobs—turned out to be false. A survey of business owners in Washington, D.C., released last June by the city’s auditor found that 87.5 percent said the paid sick days requirement wouldn’t cause them to move their businesses elsewhere. In San Francisco County, employment rates actually went up after the implementation of its law, even as they fell in neighboring counties that don’t require employers to provide paid sick days. According to the Connecticut survey, conducted by Eileen Appelbaum and Ruth Milkman, employer support for paid sick days increased after the law went into effect, with more than three-quarters supportive of the policy.

Though these findings have somewhat weakened the business case, resistance to paid sick days among some business groups has remained determined—if quietly so. Chambers of commerce have fought hard against paid sick days bills in almost every campaign thus far, submitting testimony and lobbying legislators behind the scenes. The National Federation of Independent Businesses, a Washington-based group that has received large donations from Karl Rove’s Crossroads GPS and the Koch brothers’ American Prosperity Foundation (yet calls itself the “voice of small business”), has waged campaigns against at least 21 paid-sick-leave bills, issuing local reports with high estimates of the cost to businesses. Perhaps the most vehement—and surreptitious— opposition has come from the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), which helped draft the first bill, in Wisconsin, that would pre-empt paid-sick-days legislation, and coordinated early national pushback against the paid leave effort. (ALEC leaders now deny involvement with the issue.)

The restaurant industry, the nation’s single biggest employer of low-wage workers, has also been actively, if somewhat furtively, involved in fighting paid-sick-leave bills. Though it never mentions the issue in its press releases, the National Restaurant Association (or “the other NRA,” as paid-sick-leave advocates like to call it) has taken the lead against paid-sick-leave initiatives in the City of Milwaukee and the States of Vermont and Massachusetts. The group put up perhaps the hardest fight in Denver, Colorado, where it spent $100,000 on the successful fight against a paid-sick-days ballot measure.

Meanwhile, in Orange County, Florida, the Darden Restaurant Group, which owns several restaurant chains including Red Lobster, Olive Garden, and LongHorn Steakhouse, was caught up in what’s been called “textgate.” The scandal came about after it was discovered county legislators had been texting with lobbyists during a public hearing on paid sick time. While dozens of messages flew between lawmakers and lobbyists from Universal Studios and Disney World, as well as Darden, the county Board of Commissioners decided not to allow a paid-sick-time measure to appear on the ballot, illegally delaying the vote despite the fact that it had already gathered the necessary 50,000 signatures. The incident, which is still being investigated, revealed the extent to which corporate lobbyists had been secretly orchestrating the opposition.

Clearly Darden, a publicly-traded, Orange County-based company that doesn’t provide paid sick time to its 185,000 employees, and the National Restaurant Association, which represents the industry with the most low-wage workers in the country, could have financial reasons to be concerned about paid-sick-leave laws. But not all corporations that oppose paid sick leave do so out of such direct self-interest. Take the cable giant, Comcast, for instance, which led the charge against a paid-sick-days bill in Philadelphia, where it’s headquartered. Comcast spent more than $100,000 in lobbying against the bill, despite the fact that the company already provides sick days to its employees.

Why would such a company care at all about paid sick days? Why do others that will only be minimally affected care as much as they do? Philadelphia City Councilman Bill Greenlee, the sponsor of legislation that would have provided paid sick days to some 200,000 workers there, has pondered these questions about the several Philadelphia businesses that, as he puts it, formed “a circle of wagons” around his bill.

Greenlee, whose bill passed the council twice—and was vetoed both times after extensive lobbying—even directly asked his opponents about their motivations. “They had this non-understandable argument about keeping records. I never quite followed that; you always have to keep records,” says Greenlee. “But then one time, I’m arguing with this guy and he says ‘Dammit, Bill. We just don’t want you telling us what to do.’”


If broad principle, rather than any specific threat, motivates some of the opposition to paid sick days, core beliefs drive the other side, too. A division of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) called 32BJ, which represents more than 120,000 doormen, security officers, and janitors among other workers, has spent considerable staff time and resources pushing for paid sick days in several cities, including New York and Philadelphia. Yet, virtually all of its members already have them in their contracts.

It may seem strange that a labor union with so many needs would spend precious resources securing a benefit they already have. But, given the instability of low-wage work, the problem—and, ultimately, the solution—is bigger than individual contracts, according to Hector Figueroa, president of 32BJ. “Our politics have to be about much more than winning for our members,” says Figueroa. “Our members know that [for] all they have—wages and benefits—they are always 30 days away from losing the whole thing.”

So the union—along with the Working Families Party as well as advocacy groups including the National Partnership for Women and Families, Family Values at Work, and the Main Street Alliance focused on improving life for working families—has staked out a position not just on paid sick days but on the very future of working conditions. And, across a firm line, some large employers and business groups have staked out theirs. Neither side appears willing to budge.

In the most obvious ways, paid-sick-leave advocates are outmatched. They’re dwarfed financially and, as opposition to the policy shifts toward preemption bills, have thus far fallen on the less crafty side of the divide. They’ve mostly looked on with horror as at least ten states have passed laws that prevent future paid sick days measures from being enacted and even, in the case of Milwaukee, invalidating existing laws.

But while all this maneuvering has cost advocates certain battles over paid sick days, ultimately it may win them the war. Note what’s happened since Florida passed such a preemption bill last June. The law effectively invalidates any local paid sick days measure, rendering the Orange County ballot initiative that had been scheduled for 2014 moot and seemingly putting a final stake in the heart of the local paid sick days effort. Yet, together with the stealth-texting scandal and the commissioners’ refusal to bring ballot measures to a vote, the preemption strategy has galvanized the local paid sick days movement.

“By the end of the legislative session, we had gone from 67 percent of [likely voters] to 88 percent” supporting paid sick days, says Stephanie Porta, executive director of Organize Now, the community-based group in Florida that spearheaded the campaign around the issue. Porta says that a diverse group of people, including Tea Partiers, pastors and police, has come to support the cause primarily because they saw the opposition as underhanded. Fueled by outrage at the way in which the paid-sick-days ballot measure was scuttled, they have spearheaded a larger good government effort.

“People really got [that] this wasn’t just about paid sick days, this was about any citizens’ initiative,” she says. “They were appalled at the lengths that the people in power will go to get what they want.”

Ultimately, the question of whether all workers should have paid sick days will likely be settled on the federal level. But, until then, Porta and others around the country are marveling as the issue takes on momentum and significance that no one anticipated. “We went from having an Orange County ballot initiative to having a statewide discussion,” says Porta. “It’s amazing.”



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