Grassroots Movement for Paid Sick Days for Workers Picking Up Steam Across the Country
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"I'll be happy when no one in the United States has to choose between the job they need and the family they love," said Bravo. "When no one has to choose between their health or the health of a loved one on one hand, and financial security on the other." Bravo's impassioned argument has the weight of public opinion behind it: a July 2011 survey of Connecticut voters found that over 70 percent approve of the paid sick days law that passed there on July 5. Support for paid sick days is gaining strength at the grassroots level, so even though FVAW is helping to coordinate a national campaign for the policy, it is the local coalitions that are slugging it out against big business associations in city council meetings and at ballot boxes.
In Seattle, WA, the City Council voted eight to one on Sept. 12 and the mayor signed the bill Sept. 23. to require all employers to provide paid sick days.
“It was just a wonderful, exciting campaign that ended in a glorious victory,” said Marilyn Watkins, policy director at the Seattle-based Economic Opportunity Institute (EOI). Watkins estimates that between 150,000 and 200,000 people in the city will benefit from the new law, "a lot of [them in] the service sector where the norm is to not provide any paid leave."
ROC has studied the issue in the restaurant industry, Oliva said, and its findings confirm Watkins’ observation. “We've done extensive research,” he said, “Over 8,000 surveys. What we have found is that over 90 percent of restaurant workers do not get paid sick days.”
Watkins said a broad coalition of advocacy groups, small business owners, labor unions, and community organizations came together to craft a more robust paid sick days law than the ones that had been passed in other cities like Washington, DC and San Francisco. She called it “a collaborative process,” and said that one important element in getting Seattle’s law passed was that “compromise was in the writing of the bill rather than waiting for the adversarial process” of bargaining at the City Council meetings.
Watkins said the coalition’s massive on-the-ground organizing effort paid off. “We had a very large and engaged coalition that was really capable of engaging grassroots involvement,” she said. “We heard from [councilmember] staffs that nobody could remember a City Council issue where every councilmember was getting phone calls, where at every event we were able to pack the halls with people who wanted to demonstrate their support.”
Opposition to the paid sick days legislation did come, but it wasn’t enough to counteract the support the coalition had built, Watkins said. She said the bill’s opponents were “established business associations—the Chamber of Commerce, the Restaurant Association—that tend to take an ideological stance against paid sick days. People who are used to having their say in City Hall, and used to being able to have individual conversations with the mayor and city councilmembers and get their way.”
Despite such opposition, said Watkins, “we were able to prevail with a really strong bill.”
Denver, CO is the latest city to host a paid sick days campaign. There, said Labor Project for Working Families policy director Carol Joyner, voters will decide Nov. 1 on a ballot initiative that would require employers to provide paid sick days.
Oliva said the Restaurant Opportunity Center is watching the Denver situation closely. “For us Denver is particularly interesting,” he said, “because the restaurant industry has been playing the usual game of [saying] ‘you're going to destroy the restaurant industry in Denver if this law passes.’ We now have been able to counter that argument by having restaurant owners from places like San Francisco and DC where there are already paid sick days laws on the books, and having them say that it hasn't negatively affected their bottom line at all.”