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Grassroots Movement for Paid Sick Days for Workers Picking Up Steam Across the Country

A broad coalition across the country is fighting--and winning--battles for workers' right to stay home when they're ill.

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Erin Bennett, the Colorado director for 9 to 5, a national women’s rights organization, said Colorado Secretary of State Scott Gessler used another tactic to try to squash support for it: trying to withhold ballots from people who did not vote in the 2010 Congressional elections.

Joyner calls this attempt at voter suppression “an opening salvo for 2012….To kick 55,000 registered voters off the rolls and not send them ballots because they did not vote for whatever reason in 2010.”

“The reason they're doing that,” Joyner explained, “is because those 55,000 workers are unmarried women, African Americans, Latinos, and that's the population in most dire need of paid sick days and who are most likely to vote for it."

Family Values at Work and other organizations worked feverishly through the courts to keep these Denver voters from being taken off the rolls. In what she called a “huge win,” Bennett said that District Judge Brian Whitney decided Oct. 7 to allow the 55,000 so-called “inactive” Denver voters to receive ballots.

“The city actually did win,” said Bennett, “and Denver County will be able to mail ballots to those voters so they can vote.” About the paid sick days ballot initiative: “We're excited,” Bennett said. “I think it's still looking good.”

Philadelphia

Philadelphia-based paid sick days activists are celebrating a hard-won victory this week. The City Council, after narrowly passing a paid sick days law for all workers in 2008 only to have it vetoed by the mayor, passed a modified paid sick days requirement Oct. 13 that will cover workers at employers who apply for city subsidies or who have contracts with the city.

“We are planning on reintroducing a bill next year that will cover more workers in Philly,” said Marianne Bellesorte of Pathways PA, a statewide nonprofit organization that helped bring together activists and business owners to push for paid sick days. Bellesorte added that with several new members starting in January, the Philadelphia City Council will likely approve a more inclusive bill.

Bellesorte explained that Philly’s paid sick days coalition now includes many business owners, who understand the common-sense spirit of the legislation and are willing to speak out in support of it. The coalition, called the Coalition for Healthy Families and Workplaces, is running a publicity campaign with decals that businesses can place on their storefronts to show their support. “When we sit down one-on-one and really talk to a business about the bill, they are interested and willing to talk about it,” Bellesorte said.

Labor’s Role

Joyner, who works with unions to help them organize members in support of paid sick days campaigns, said organized labor has long fought for such benefits. “It’s not new,” she said. “The labor movement has been fighting for time for a hundred years. Particularly to take care of family and family health issues--they always see it as an economic issue.”

In the past, Joyner added, unions have fought to take care of their own members first. Not so with paid sick days. “We're seeing this is an issue for everyone in America; particularly the non-union workers do not have control over their time. They do not have time to take care of themselves, to take care of their families.”

This city and state campaign for paid sick days may have elements in common with the living wage campaigns of the 1990s and early 2000s, in which anti-poverty groups, organized labor, and faith-based community groups came together to write ordinances requiring businesses to pay a local minimum wage that would provide workers enough to support themselves. Or it may resemble the campaign leading to the passage of the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) in 1993. “The reality of it is, if you think about FMLA,” said Joyner, “it moved across the country state by state, city by city, long before they had a national bill.”

 
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