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Big Money Knocks Paid Sick Leave Off Florida Ballot

Business groups won a victory over working people when, despite 50,000 signatures on a petition backing paid sick leave, a judge prevented the bill from becoming a ballot initiative.

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The following article first appeared at Working In These Times , the labor blog of In These Times magazine. For more news and analysis like this, sign up to receive In These Times ' weekly updates .

Advocates cried foul last week after a judge’s ruling effectively prevented a paid sick leave measure from reaching the November ballot in Orange County, Florida. The ruling, issued after an emergency hearing Tuesday night, ends the latest round of legal wrangling over whether the county’s commissioners could delay on putting the petition-backed proposal up for a vote. It comes amid increasing conservative pushback against the spread of such measures across the United States.

Vicki Shabo, director of work and family programs at the National Partnership for Women and Families (NPWF), called the result “perhaps the purest example I can think of, particularly in recent history, where special interest money and special interest access was used to usurp the purest form of citizen direct democracy that there is.” Orange County Mayor Teresa Jacobs, and the business group Central Florida Partnership, did not respond to requests for comment.

As I’ve  reported previously, last year saw new momentum behind local laws requiring employers to provide workers with some minimum number of paid sick days to care for themselves or their families. At this time in 2010, paid sick leave laws had been passed only in San Francisco, Washington, D.C., and Milwaukee (the last of which was overridden by a statewide Wisconsin law last year). In 2011, measures passed at the state level in Connecticut and at the city level in Seattle. A referendum failed in Denver. Philadelphia’s Democratic mayor vetoed a broad paid sick leave bill but allowed one restricted to city contractors and subsidized companies to pass. In June of this year, Louisiana passed a law like Wisconsin’s, pre-emptively barring local leave mandates. Paid sick leave struggles are now afoot in at least five states.

Unlike other paid leave battlegrounds, Orange County has a Republican mayor and a two-thirds Republican majority on its county commission. But Shabo says that the county was chosen in part because “it has a big tourist and service industry,” making sick days for service workers a “clear public health imperative.” She says the county, which includes Orlando, has “a large and vibrant and diverse community.” Shabo adds that “in terms of getting attention to the issue, and to the need that workers have for sick days, Florida is a good place – would have been a good place – to do that.”

In Orange County, a coalition including labor groups like Jobs with Justice gathered more than 50,000 signatures on a petition backing a sick leave bill. Business groups led by the Central Florida Partnership sued, unsuccessfully, to have the petition process suspended on the grounds that its language was misleading. The bill’s opponents included Disney and the  Darden restaurant chain.

The signatures were submitted to the county commissioners, who are authorized under the county’s charter to vote either to make the proposed bill a law or to send it to the ballot for a referendum. At their September 11 meeting, the commissioners and mayor voted unanimously not to enact the ballot measure into law. But rather than sending it to the ballot, they voted 4-3 to hire a ballot language expert to review the proposed law, and to organize a workshop and a public hearing on the issue.

The vote not to send the measure to the ballot passed despite the objections of the county’s attorney, Jeff Newton, who  said, “It’s hard for me to reconcile logically how the board could now go back – go back in time – and essentially correct the language that 50,000 signatures were obtained based upon.”

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