With Oregon's Bill, Paid Sick Leave Gains Momentum

Doug Geisler

Building on a strong and growing level of momentum nationwide, on Friday, the Oregon legislature passed a bill that mandates paid sick leave. Governor Kate Brown, a progressive Democrat, is sure to sign the bill, making Oregon the fourth state to pass mandated paid sick leave. The vote is a significant win for a nationwide movement that’s been quietly gaining steam among cities, states, and presidential candidates in recent years.   

It’s also coming not a moment too soon. Half of the Oregon’s private sector workers don’t have access to paid sick leave; about 80 percent of the state’s low-wage workers are without it—this legislation will mandate access for somewhere north of 500,000 Oregon workers. The bill mandates that employers with more than 10 workers must offer up to five days of paid sick leave; businesses with less than 10 employees still must provide protected sick leave, though it may be unpaid. Both full-time and part-time workers are covered.

The success in Oregon is the result of a new supermajority of Democrats in the state legislature (one of the few in the country), which has come to see paid sick leave as a political necessity thanks to the grassroots organizing of progressive organizations in the state.

“There's a huge political consequence for being against paid sick days,” says Dan Cantor, the national director for the Working Families Party, which has been on the forefront of the fight for progressive policies like paid sick leave. “That's doubly true in Democratic primaries, where virtually every voter supports paid sick days and thinks it's common sense. Opposition just seems so inhumane.”

That hasn’t always been the case. Progressive Democrats had pushed for a statewide sick leave law in 2013, as well as a local ordinance in Portland. The ordinance passed in Portland, but the proposal for a statewide policy failed. “It was a relatively new concept at the time,” says Oregon state senator Michael Dembrow, whose district includes Portland. The state’s more conservative Democrats were wary of angering the political clout of business associations like the Chamber of Commerce.

The Portland ordinance, which went into effect in January 2014, served as a trial run for the policy while progressive organizations maintained pressure for a state law. While there were some complaints regarding the rollout of the policy, Portland businesses largely have accepted paid sick leave as a new reality. After Portland, the city of Eugene also passed a paid sick leave ordinance.

Industry began to see that the tide was turning and rather than deal with the logistical challenges of dealing with differing policies on a city by city basis, business leaders saw that a uniform statewide law would be easier. “That gave us a lot of leverage,” Dembrow says. In addition, in the 2014 election Democrats picked up a few seats, cobbling together a working majority that supports a progressive economics platform—an increased minimum wage, ban the box legislation, a state-run retirement plan for all workers, and mandatory paid sick leave.

Without the members the Democratic Party gained in 2014, Dembrow says paid sick leave wouldn’t have passed.

Since 2013, the Oregon Working Families Party, along with Families Forward Oregon and the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 555, has worked to reach out to voters and inform them about the merits of paid sick leave.

“I would say since the campaign in Portland, we’ve talked to 60,000 Oregonians about paid sick leave,” says Karly Edwards, state director for the Oregon Working Families Party. “For any big social change, it requires not just the political leadership, but also the movement of working families who are taking action together to show the will of the people to have such change made.

The Working Families Party is also unique among advocacy groups in that it is an actual political party with operations in multiple states and thus can push its agenda through candidate nominations as well; a key requirement for the party’s nomination of Oregon Democrats was a commitment to pass paid sick leave legislation. The party ultimately nominated 53 candidates for House and Senate races.

Oregon joins Connecticut, California, and Massachusetts as the fourth state to implement a statewide requirement for paid sick leave. That’s on top of a number of urban outposts including New York City, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., San Francisco, Seattle, and Portland. Additionally, there are seven cities in New Jersey with paid sick leave ordinances on the books. Paid sick leave—along with minimum wage hikes—has rapidly become the new labor standard in Blue America. 

“Most people intuitively understand that people should get paid sick days. No one wants to force working people to lose pay when they get sick, and no one wants to think about what happens when a waitress or a day care provider has to come to work sick,” WFP’s Cantor says. “Every other industrialized nation has figured this out. But in America, it took until people got organized and were willing to force it onto the political agenda.”

Showing just how politically mainstream paid sick leave has become, President Obama made it a key policy point in his 2015 State of the Union address. “Today, we are the only advanced country on Earth that doesn’t guarantee paid sick leave or paid maternity leave to our workers. Forty-three million workers have no paid sick leave—43 million. Think about that,” the President said. “That forces too many parents to make the gut-wrenching choice between a paycheck and a sick kid at home. Send me a bill that gives every worker in America the opportunity to earn seven days of paid sick leave. It’s the right thing to do.”

It’s already become a cornerstone for Democrats seeking the presidential nomination. Progressive firebrand and presidential candidate Senator Bernie Sanders introduced legislation last week that called paid family and medical leave, paid sick leave, and most surprisingly 10 paid days of vacation for many employees.

Hillary Clinton tweeted her support for Philadelphia’s passage of a paid sick leave law in February, and previously said in a speech in December that “we need to get paid leave provisions on every state ballot by 2016 that we can possibly manage to do.”

Passing paid sick leave legislation piece by piece will be difficult though. Republican-controlled state legislatures certainly have no interest in passing paid sick leave legislation, but many have taken to passing ALEC-drafted “preemption” bills that prohibit cities from passing such mandates. As Sharon Lerner previously reported for The American Prospect, The National Federation of Independent Businesses, which has received substantial donations from Karl Rove’s Crossroads GPS and the Koch Brothers’ Americans for Prosperity campaigned against several local paid sick leave campaigns, falsely contending that they would be a unsustainable burden for small businesses.

“A low-wage worker in Georgia needs paid sick time just as much as one in California,” Cantor says. “So eventually, the next step will have to be federal legislation. Luckily, every state and city win makes federal action seem more and more likely. That is politically improbable until there is a significant shift in power in Congress—which may come in 2016.

Still, progressive organizations like the Working Families Party have been crucial to getting paid sick leave legislation passed where there is political support, holding politicians accountable when they don’t support it, and forcing the policy—along with other progressive economic issues—into the national political conversation. The passage in Oregon is a promising example of how progressive coalitions can turn their collective political clout into impactful progressive legislation that tangibly improves the lives of thousands of workers. 

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