Sick? The GOP Wants You to Come to Work Anyway
As attempts to dehumanize the workplace go, few could be more sadistic than forcing workers to come to work sick, but that's precisely what the Florida legislature and Governor Rick Scott recently did.
This throwback to the Satanic mills era of industrial relations came in response to a successful petition by 50,000 voters in Orange County, Florida, to place on the ballot an initiative to guarantee a certain number of paid sick days to all workers in the county. The state bill nullifies the ballot measure by blocking local governments from enacting any standards on sick leave, voter preferences be damned.
Governor Scott and the state legislature did this at the behest of some of Florida's largest employers, including Disney World, which might otherwise have suffered the inconvenience of employees being able to go to the doctor without losing their jobs. Ostensibly, legislators say it's to maintain "uniform regulatory standards" throughout the state. But Florida legislators have never been particularly devoted to uniformity in other legal matters. This is, after all, a state that allows its counties to ban the sale of alcohol and come up with their own interpretations of the First Amendment by erecting gigantic monuments of the Ten Commandments outside of courthouses.
But when it comes to worker protections, Florida is a stickler for centralized authority, as long as that authority assures no such protections exist. The reason corporations are calling on the state to override local initiatives is precisely due to the popularity of such initiatives among voters, not just in Florida – where polls show 80% of residents support setting sick leave standards, consistent with national surveys, but also in several other states including Wisconsin, where Republican Governor Scott Walker threw out a sick leave law in Milwaukee that passed in a voter referendum by 69%. Prior to Walker's nullification, Milwaukee was one of a growing number of cities – San Francisco, Seattle, Portland and Washington DC – and one state, Connecticut, which guarantee some number of earned sick days – typically one hour for every 30 or 40 hours worked. There is often a maximum amount set according to business size, which workers can take in case of personal or family illness without losing pay or their jobs.
New York City will likely join the list soon, with the city council set to overturn Mayor Bloomberg's veto of its paid sick leave law. Thus in Florida and elsewhere, Republican-controlled statehouses have been scrambling to either overturn or preemptively bar such initiatives with copy-and-paste bills drafted by the American Legislative Exchange Council, which for good measure also nullify other protections that, for example, prevent workers from being fired for being gay, another issue many states feel is best left up to employers.
The fact that sick leave protections enjoy increasing public support speaks to their broader health and safety implications for consumers. Workers most often denied sick leave are concentrated in certain service industries, particularly hospitality, retail and food preparation. A survey by the advocacy group Restaurant Opportunities Centers United found 64% of food service workers have reported working while sick. One dishwasher interviewed in New York testified:
"I don't have health insurance and I don't get sick days. If I get sick, I take painkillers and continue working. ... Once, I was washing dishes when I cut myself on a piece of broken glass. Because the water was hot, the bleeding just wouldn't stop. It was so busy that day and I didn't want to be sent home without pay so I kept on working."
So far, any job-killing side effects predicted by sick leave opponents have failed to materialize. San Francisco, the first city to enact a sick leave bill, saw both employment and the number of businesses grow in the years following its implementation, while both declined in neighboring counties. And consumers seem to agree that whatever costs may be borne by businesses or passed on to them are outweighed by the benefits of not eating food that has been sneezed and bled upon. Were this not the case, there would be no need for such preemption laws in the first place.
The political football between state and local governments is unlikely to be resolved anytime soon at the federal level. Unlike every other rich country in the world, ours is a nation that prides itself on upholding the traditions of our founders by not offering things like paid vacations or maternal (or paternal) leave. And so workers groups will continue their piecemeal efforts to drag the US, city by city, into the last century, while Republican state lawmakers – the same ones who routinely restrict access to abortion in defiance of federal law, refuse to implement Obamacare and claim the right to draw up their own immigration enforcement schemes – find themselves in the awkward position of intervening against local control in the name of central government.
An old saying about consistency and hobgoblins comes to mind.