Labor

Promising Momentum Points to Paid Sick Leave Spreading Widely

Big money opposes any increase in workers rights, but some of the signs are good.

Photo Credit: Shutterstock.com

For 38,000 private sector workers in Newark, mid-December brought good news and bad. The City Council of New Jersey’s most populous city delayed its vote on a paid sick leave bill until January 8 , so no early Christmas present for workers. But the bill they will be voting on after the new year, and by all accounts are likely to pass, will be the strongest sick leave bill in the nation, and will set the bar that much higher for other municipalities and states to come.

The sick leave debate in Newark came at the end of a watershed year for workers and their advocates. Fast food workers went on multiple strikes, drawing more attention to their low-wage plight. Mega corporations Walmart and McDonalds came under pressure and were exposed for not just exploiting their workers, but ultimately costing taxpayers who must subsidize underpaid full-timers. Raising minimum wage came front and center in the national conversation, with Democrats proclaiming it their number-one priority in 2014. And the number of cities requiring private businesses to give their workers some sick pay doubled, including Jersey City, New Jersey’s second biggest city in September, and New York City, despite its billionaire mayor’s veto last summer.

Newly sworn in Mayor Bill de Blasio has promised to make inequality his top priority, and says his choice for the city's top attorney, Zachary Carter, will help the city extend paid sick leave protections to "more people, more quickly." In 2013, Portland, Oregon, San Francisco, Seattle, Washington, DC, the tiny town of SeaTac, Washington and the state of Connecticut all passed sick leave legislation. Massachusetts, Oregon and Vermont are poised to pass paid sick day bills, as is the city of Tacoma, WA.

"The tide has changed on paid sick days,” said Jon Green, national deputy director of the Working Families. “People look at a waiter or childcare provider or retail worker and they just know that forcing those people to go to work sick isn't healthy and it isn't right. Public support for paid sick days is extraordinary, and elected officials who don't realize it risk paying a steep price."

Let’s hope.

All in all, about 40 percent of America’s private sector workers are obliged to choose between a paycheck and their health, a deplorable state of affairs that endangers not only the health and welfare of employees, but that of others who work near or are served by them. The situtation is especially dire in the restaurant industry, where according to the Restaurant Opportunities Center United, 90 percent of workers don't have paid sick days, and 60 percent admit coming to work when they are sick. Not giving workers paid sick leave has been blamed for helping spread the H1N1 flu and other contagious diseases.

The U.S. has the distinction of being the only country of the 15 most economically competitive countries (Australia, Austria, Canada, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Iceland,Japan, Netherlands, Norway, Singapore, Sweden, Switzerland, Britain and the United States) not to guarantee workers sick leave, and generally lags behind in every category of employee rights, from vacation pay to maternity and paternity leave.

The opposition to granting workers (and the public) this modicum of decency that is commonplace among other developed countries (most of these bills allow for a whopping five sick days per year, the most progressive requiring workers to earn an hour of sick pay for each 30 hours worked) is well-funded, well-organized and willing to fight as dirty as they need to. Front and center is the corporate-funded, right-wing American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), chambers of commerce and restaurant industry associations, all who make the tired and discredited argument that mandating such policies would cost jobs and be a financial burden on businesses. Sound familiar?

In fact, not granting workers paid leave when they are sick has been shown to cost businesses even more. Sick workers are less productive (as are workers worried about sick loved ones). All evidence from the locales that have enacted these humane policies points to guaranteed paid sick leave being good for business, job growth and the overall economy. One estimate, from the Economic Policy Institute is that without paid sick days, an employer will lose about $225 per year per worker, because of lost productivity.

Not to mention the human cost.

"I watched my parents go to work sick because there was no such thing as paid sick leave and they had four children who needed to eat," Newark councilwoman Mildred Crump said during a rally for paid sick leave in October. She recounted how her father’s bad cold turned into pneumonia after several mornings of trudging in the freezing cold to the bus. "Shame on anyone who says this is not a good idea. Shame on them. They need to walk a mile in our shoes."

Nevertheless, so intent are the likes of ALEC and likeminded groups to prevent sick leave from becoming the law of the land that they have been instrumental in pushing preemption bills in as many states as possible. These bills block cities and smaller municipalities from passing sick leave ordinances. Pretty twisted logic for the right-wing, which normally is an advocate for local rule (except when local rule is at odds with the conservative, pro-corporate agenda). Ten such pre-emption laws are in effect, seven of them passed in 2013, when Arizona, Florida, North Carolina, Tennessee, Kansas and Indiana joined Georgia, Wisconsin and Louisiana.

At year’s end, Pennsylvania is in the throes of the battle, with the GOP-controlled state legislature doing its utmost to prevent the Philadelphia city council from passing a paid sick leave bill for restaurant workers as it has tried to do for several years. (Like New York under Bloomberg, the mayor of Philadelphia opposes this benefit for workers.) The preemption bill in Pennsylvania, House Bill 1807, which would prevent local rule, stands a good chance of passing.

Philadelphiamagazine’s Joel Mathis recently noted the peculiar hypocrisy, and real aim of ALEC in all this.

Far from being a Pennsylvania-only effort, it appears that House Bill 1807 is part of a broader effort led by the pro-Republican American Legislative Exchange Council to pass a series of state laws prohibiting paid sick leave around the country. It’s a bill that would never pass the Congress — where Democrats control the Senate: ALEC’s specialty, in essence, is passing national-effects policies at the state level, belying the supposed GOP love of Federalism.

So, enjoy that flu virus served up with your coffee, residents of states where ALEC is on the march.