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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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It may seem like a no-brainer: get sick, stay home from work. But 44 million American workers do not get paid sick days from their employers, according to Ellen Bravo, director of Family Values at Work, a 16-state consortium that advocates for family-friendly work policies. In tough economic times, many workers simply cannot afford to stay out of work until they get well. Some employers will even fire workers for taking time off when they or their kids are sick, Bravo said.

“Bad [economic] times are the worst time to lose your job because you're being a good parent,” said Bravo. “We can't say we [as a nation] care about family values, and have those values end at the workplace door.”

Discontent with the lack of a coordinated policy on paid sick time has reached an unprecedented level. Groups of workers across the country say they've had it with being forced to show up sick to work. Restaurant Opportunity Centers (ROC) policy director Jose Oliva agrees that a change is needed. “Over two thirds of restaurant workers go to work sick,” he said, “because they can't afford not to go to work.” 

City- and state-based coalitions representing consumers, families, seniors, and other sectors of the general public are saying they've had enough germs in their restaurant food and enough of seeing their own kids get sick from contact at school with other sick kids whose parents must work rather than stay home with them. “It's a public health hazard to have workers work sick,” said Oliva.

Places that have paid sick days laws so far include:

  • Philadelphia, where the city council voted 15-2 on Oct. 13  to mandate paid sick days for workers whose employers have contracts with the city or apply for city subsidies;
  • San Francisco, where voters approved a citywide ordinance in 2006 giving workers the right to accrue 1 hour of paid sick time for every 30 hours worked;
  • Washington, DC, which adopted paid sick days in 2008, adding “safe” days for survivors of domestic violence, but excluding restaurant workers and workers in their first year of employment;
  • Seattle, where the city council approved a strong paid sick days law Sept. 12 and the mayor signed it Sept. 23; and
  • Connecticut, which on Jan. 1, 2012 will become the first state to implement a paid sick days law.

Research groups, including ROC and think tanks like the Denver-based Bell Policy Center, have conducted studies showing that restaurants and other businesses tend to see improved worker retention, and that local economies thrive after starting to give workers paid time off for illnesses.

Bravo cited a September 2011 study of San Francisco’s economy  by the women’s rights think tank Institute for Women’s Policy Research. “We now have the evidence,” said Bravo. “San Francisco has had paid sick days for four years. Job growth in that county is stronger than in the surrounding counties without paid sick days.”  

But some business associations still oppose paid sick days, saying such laws impose too much of a burden on employers.

Time—and battles over paid sick days legislation in places like Seattle and Denver—will tell whether such public support can build the kind of momentum that will be needed to overcome the lobbying efforts of these business groups and make paid sick days the law of the land.

The Slow Spread of Paid Sick Leave

In city after city, state after state, groups of people--senior citizens' groups, black and Latino advocacy groups, small business owners, public health professionals, labor unions, parents' groups, anti-poverty groups--are teaming up to push for local laws requiring employers to give workers at least a few paid sick days a year. Bravo’s group, Family Values at Work, is helping to coordinate and advise the local groups, and is pushing Congress to pass a national paid sick days law called the Healthy Families Act.

"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.

Seattle

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

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.”

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.”

Like both of those struggles, said Joyner, the paid sick days movement demands that unions and other groups advocate for everyone, not just their own members. “Unions are taking this fight outside of the bargaining table into the communities,” she said.

Bravo added that labor’s involvement has helped advance the cause of paid sick days nationally. “In some cases,” she said, “union organizing drives have taken up the issue of paid sick days, and that overlaps with our work. It's been great to have that support just as it's been great to have the support of business leaders.”  

“A public health menace”

Bringing up the rear flank of the grassroots paid sick days campaign are public health officials and advocates, who say paid sick days could make the difference in helping to stop or slow an outbreak of disease. Dr. Barbara Ferrer, executive director of Boston’s Public Health Commission, appeared in a short public service film in support of paid sick days, saying "As a public health official, my advice is to stay home if you're sick. Paid sick days could help us prevent a real contagion."  

Oliva agrees. “It's actually a public health menace to not have paid sick days on the books,” he said. He added that graphic testimony from restaurant workers often confirms the darkest fears of consumers and public health officials. Oliva cited workers like Mariana in Chicago, “who had a 101 fever and was serving in the restaurant and dripping sweat onto the food that she was serving.”

Bravo added that healthcare industry research supports the idea that workers like Mariana should get paid to stay home when they’re sick. A study from the Institute for Women's Policy Research found that paid sick days would reduce unnecessary emergency department use, saving $1 billion per year. 

Bravo said people in the healthcare system are eager to see paid sick days pass for other reasons. “We have hospital officials who have spoken out,” she said, “saying their hallways are lined with seniors whose adult children are not allowed to leave work to pick them up after a procedure or doctor's appointment."

The Healthy Families Act

All of these city- and state-based campaigns heap additional public pressure on to the national push for paid sick days. Called the Healthy Families Act, the legislation now before Congress would provide all workers in the US with seven earned days per year, to be used to care for themselves or a sick child or ailing relative. Oliva said if the law passes, workers would earn one hour of paid sick leave for every 30 hours they work.

Oliva said that although the national business lobbying groups say they oppose the bill, he thinks it is only a matter of time before there is enough public pressure to counter them. “You remember the argument from the restaurant industry when cities tried to outlaw smoking in restaurants?” he said. “It was going to be the end of the restaurant industry as we knew it. I don't think there's a single city in the US where smoking is still allowed in the restaurant. It's exactly the same thing [with paid sick days]. It's not going to kill the restaurant industry.”

But Bravo said the Chamber of Commerce and other business associations are really afraid of something else. “It’s a huge amount of money that big restaurant chains are pouring into this. They're doing it because of power--they want to be the ones who decide. They don't like that this is being left up to the will of the people.”

Bravo added that cracks have formed in the lobbyists’ resistance to the legislation, and some former opponents are now coming out in support of paid sick days. She cited a June 2010 article in Bloomberg’s Business Week in which Golden Gate Restaurant Association director Kevin Westlye—a lobbyist who had formerly opposed San Francisco’s paid sick days law—wass quoted as saying paid sick days “is the best public policy for the least cost. Do you want your server coughing over your food?” 

Mariya Strauss is a writer who lives in Baltimore.
 
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