Finally, CT to Become First State With Paid Sick Leave Legislation; Now What About the Rest of the Country?
As progressives across the country struggle to beat back a wave of right-wing statewide legislation, their Connecticut counterparts are poised to celebrate a historic victory: the signing of a bill making their state the first in the nation mandating paid sick days. After passing Connecticut’s House and Senate over the past few weeks, the bill is headed to the desk of Governor Dan Malloy, who has backed it since his campaign. The Connecticut victory has emboldened activists pushing for similar legislation in New York City, Denver, Seattle, and Philadelphia – where the city council will vote on its own bill Thursday.
The Connecticut bill requires service sector employers to provide employees at least one hour of paid sick time for each 40 hours they work. Workers can use these days to take care of themselves or a sick family member. The bill exempts businesses with under 50 employees, construction businesses and non-profits. Similar laws already exist at the municipal level in San Francisco, Milwaukee and Washington, DC.
Advocates have embraced paid sick leave as a policy that protects workers’ job security, families’ economic security, and public health, without cost to government. Analysis of Bureau of Labor Statistics data by the National Partnership for Women and Families shows that 40 million Americans work in jobs where they will never be eligible for paid sick leave. In a University of Chicago survey, the majority of workers without paid sick days reported having gone to work sick, and they were more than twice as likely to have gone to the emergency room because they lacked time off to go to a doctor’s office.
“It’s very hard to stand up and say people should go to work or send their kids to school sick,” said Andrew Friedman of Make the Road New York, “because it’s a public health nightmare, and any close look at it shows that it’s more expensive in the long run.”
Kia Murrell, who lobbied against paid sick leave for years for the Connecticut Business and Industry Alliance, claimed the bill will lead to lost jobs, worsened benefits and workers replaced by machines. She said businesses don’t offer paid sick days “because they can’t afford it,” and that if service workers working sick were a real threat to public health, “we would all be sick all the time.” Murrell suggested workers really come to work sick because they’re saving their sick days “for pleasure.” She also faulted workers for being too quick to call in sick: “A high-powered executive, if they get a cold, is more likely to tough it out.”
But analysis by the Drum Major Institute shows that since San Francisco passed the nation’s first citywide paid sick leave law, job growth and business growth there have outpaced the five surrounding counties, including Santa Clara Country, home of Silicon Valley. Four years after businesses mobilized against the bill, a study by the Economic Opportunity Institute shows that two-thirds of San Francisco employers now support the law.
The Connecticut Campaign
How has this campaign been able to gain momentum at a moment when progressives are fighting just to hold their ground against attacks on labor and public health?
Paid sick leave advocates in six states all pointed to the importance of strong coalitions; coalitions with breadth from drawing in many different communities and depth from months of outreach to turn voters into supporters and supporters into activists. Jon Green, director of Connecticut’s Working Families Party and the allied Working Families Organization, sees it as a “fertile issue” in part because it “intersects with a wide cross-section of constituencies, some of whom don’t always work together.” Local coalitions include public health advocates, educators, labor, business owners, clergy, and women's, senior citizens, domestic violence survivors, and LGBT groups.
Advocates also stressed the importance of using creative actions to engage the public and garner earned media, using research to debunk opposition claims; and working closely with elected officials to address their concerns and engage them in moving their peers.
All of those factors came into place in the victory in Connecticut, which Green described as the product of “strong strategy, good friends in the right places, lots of hard work and a little luck.” Progressives in Connecticut have spent years laying the groundwork through canvassing, coalition-building, and education efforts directed at politicians and the public. Tactics included protests outside restaurants owned by wealthy chains that offer no sick leave, including Starbucks (Slogan: “No Coughing in My Coffee”) and the Olive Garden (“Infinite Breadsticks But No Sick Days”). In 2008, they got it through the state senate, but not the state house. In 2009, they got it through the state house, but not the state senate. In both sessions, it faced a promised veto by Governor Jodi Rell.
With Rell retiring, the multi-year push for paid sick days forced gubernatorial candidates to take sides on the issue during the campaign, and the election results created an opportunity for the cause to get across the finish line. Ned Lamont, who drew national attention running an anti-war campaign against Joe Lieberman in 2006, came out against paid sick days in a bid to recast himself as a centrist businessman. Lamont’s primary opponent, Stamford Mayor Dan Malloy, embraced paid sick days, won the primary in an upset, and beat Republican Tom Foley in November.
Votes Malloy won on the ballot line of the Working Families Party exceeded his margin of victory over Foley, and Green says Malloy became “an increasingly full-throated and public advocate” for paid sick leave (Connecticut has fusion voting, which allows qualifying third parties the option of placing a “major party” candidate on their own ballot line). Progressives stepped up the pressure on new and returning politicians for a paid sick leave bill following the election, and this month their work paid off.
A Movement’s Moment?
Advocates in New York, Seattle, Denver, and Philadelphia have all declared the Connecticut bill a shot in the arm for their efforts to win paid sick leave in their own cities. Most of those efforts should come to a vote by the end of the year.
In Denver, activists are about to begin gathering signatures to put a citywide ordinance on the November ballot. Erin Bennett, executive director of Denver 9to5, said that after seeing the influence the business lobby was able to wield against statewide legislative efforts, progressives chose to go the citywide referendum route first. Last month supporters held a lunchtime downtown rally highlighting the lack of sick days for workers at nearby restaurants.
In Seattle, activists expect to see their bill introduced in City Council this month. Last month they held a community forum which drew 250 people, including staff representing each member of Council. “The system isn’t working when little children are crying in the school nurse’s office begging them not to call their mom,” said coalition director Marilyn Watkins. “I’d love to have [the bill] in place before the next flu season and school year starts.”
In Milwaukee, paid leave activists are on defense after Scott Walker signed a statewide bill of questionable legality which would preempt implementation of the citywide law voters passed by referendum in 2008. That battle is now in the courts. “For people who ran on the concept of local control to pass legislation that preempts what 70 percent of the population wanted is ludicrous and hypocritical,” said Vicki Shabo of the National Partnership for Women and Families.
In New York City, advocates built a veto-proof majority on Council last term, and are lobbying Council Speaker Christine Quinn to stop blocking a vote on their bill. Their campaign has included direct action targeting city council members, including gathering postcards from fellow congregants outside their churches and handing out bottles of hand sanitizer outside their chambers. Early in the campaign, 700 people marched across the Brooklyn Bridge to City Hall.
Asked whether Speaker Quinn was right to see the strength of the economy as a relevant concern in deciding whether to allow a vote, NY Paid Leave Coalition chair Donna Dolan replied diplomatically: “It’s a relevant concern to the speaker, and that’s what’s key here.” Dolan also noted that unemployment is worsened when workers lose their jobs for getting sick. Family Values @ Work executive director Ellen Bravo was more critical, saying that Quinn’s been making “the wrong calculation about whose support she needs” for a mayoral bid. Bravo suggested that Quinn will eventually realize the importance of paid sick leave to “groups without which her political ambitions will not advance,” including women and the LGBT community. Quinn is meeting regularly with the councilmember sponsoring of the legislation.
In Philadelphia, after a series of delays for amendments, a city council vote on paid sick days is scheduled for Thursday. Mayor Michael Nutter has indicated his opposition but has not said whether he would veto the bill. This year activists built a coalition of 100 organizations to help lobby City Council and gathered 17,000 postcards which they strung around the perimeter of City Hall. Marianne Bellesorte, senior director of Policy for Pathways PA, said she expected “a tight vote” Thursday, but expressed hope that the bill would pass and that Mayor Nutter would decide against a vetoing a policy with demonstrated popular support.
Bellesorte’s hopes were echoed by Dewetta Logan, a former social worker who now directs the Smart Beginnings Early Learning Center. “A child is not to supposed to be in our care if they have certain illnesses,” she said, “but there’s nothing I can do if a parent just can’t leave” to pick a sick child up.
The victory in Connecticut has strengthened the hopes of activists pushing for similar local laws– and hoping one day for national legislation. Several compared this campaign to the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) and increases in the minimum wage – campaigns which began with legislation in a few states, spread to others, and culminated in new federal law. The prospects for such a trajectory for paid sick leave are stronger now than they were a few weeks ago; how much stronger will become more clear over the next six months. The next test is on Thursday, in Philadelphia.