Forty Years Behind on Sick-Leave Policy, But Catching Up

AP Photo/Mary Altaffer

Emilio Palaguachi, center, speaks at a rally at New York's City Hall to call for a vote on paid-sick-days legislation, which has been held up by

It’s too late for Tonisha Howard, the mother of three in Milwaukee who was fired for leaving work to be with her hospitalized two-year-old. And for Felix Trinidad, who was so afraid of losing his job at Golden Farm fruit store in Brooklyn that he didn’t take time off to go to the doctor—even after he vomited blood. Trinidad, a father of two who had stomach cancer, continued to work until just days before his death at age 34. But for workers in Portland and perhaps Philadelphia, paid sick days just got much closer to becoming reality.

Last Wednesday, the city council in Portland, Oregon, voted unanimously for a bill granting most employees up to 40 hours of paid sick leave per year. On Thursday, the Philadelphia City Council passed a similar law—and, with only one vote short of a veto-proof majority, advocates are hopeful they can find the last member they need to get it past Michael Nutter, who vetoed a similar bill in 2011. Meanwhile, in New York City, advocates geared up for a hearing on a paid-sick-leave bill, even though Council Speaker Christine Quinn still stubbornly refuses to bring it to a vote. Overall, the sentiment seems to that be more paid leave victories are inevitable. 

“We’re going to see a wave of wins,” predicts Ellen Bravo, executive director of Family Values @Work, an advocacy group that has been working on paid sick days laws throughout the country for more than five years. “I think we’re growing toward a tipping point.” 

Part of the reason for the recent successes may be that the earliest paid-sick-days laws—starting with San Francisco’s, which went into effect in 2007—have now been in place long enough for people to feel their effects. And there haven’t been very many negative ones. “The sky didn’t fall,” as Bravo puts it. The smooth transition into a world in which workers have some paid time off when they or their kids get sick flies in the face of dire predictions about cost and abuse of the law. “Our experience is that the business lobbyists complain, they fight against every little thing in the bills,” says Eileen Appelbaum, a senior economist at the Center for Economic and Policy Research. “But once the law is in place, businesses quickly adapt to it.” Appelbaum has studied the effects of San Francisco’s paid sick days law and found that “most people don’t use all the days they have. They use, on average, three or four days a year.” 

Another reason for the new momentum behind these laws may be the growing sense of injustice around the unequal distribution of paid sick days. Nearly three-quarters (73 percent) of full-time, private industry workers had paid sick leave plans in 2009, according to the Bureau of Labor statistics. But slice the workforce another way and you can see that almost 40 million people nationwide—including more than 80 percent of low-wage workers and 73 percent of part-time workers—don’t have any paid sick time at all. In addition to a class divide, there’s also a gender divide, with women—80 percent of whom have primary responsibility for sick kids—less likely to have paid sick time to care for them than men. 

“I think, for people who have paid sick days, who tend to be the opinion makers and voters, there’s a feeling that having low-income workers unable to take time off to care for themselves doesn’t seem right,” says Sherry Leiwant, co-founder and co-president of A Better Balance, a group of attorneys that has been involved in drafting and advocating for sick days bills. 

Most advocates seem hopeful that the current wave of state and local laws will lead to federal legislation that will cover workers in all states across the country. “The more examples we have of these policies and programs having no negative effects on business, the easier it becomes to make the case in Congress,” says Appelbaum. “You need to have this momentum to resist the business lobby and the big money that comes from them.” 

But while anticipation among supporters builds—and Connecticut representative Rosa DeLauro is expected to soon reintroduce the national paid-sick-leave bill, which Republicans quashed by in 2009—opposition remains fierce. The National Federation for Independent Business (which has received large donations from Karl Rove’s Crossroads GPS) has issued reports in more than a dozen states about the effects of paid-sick-leave laws, including inflated estimates of their cost to businesses and grim predictions about widespread lay-offs. Legislatively, opponents of these laws have also adopted a tactic of pre-emption, or passing laws that would make it impossible to pass sick leave laws—either by rolling back existing ones or limiting the ability of cities and towns to pass them in the future. It is a strategy that seems to be supported and spread by the powerful, far-right advocacy group, the American Legislative Exchange Council. Such a law has already passed in Mississippi, and similar bills are wending their way through the systems in Florida, Washington, and Michigan.

In New York City, where one of the most painful and closely watched paid-sick-leave battles is playing out, the main opposition strategy seems to be stalling. Since 2009, Quinn has refused to bring a vote on the bill, which would require employers with five or more employees to grant up to five paid sick days a year. Even after The New York Times ran three editorials calling on her to bring the bill to a vote, prominent women in New York City wrote a public letter asking for the same thing, and supporters of the bill made 22 amendments to it in the hopes of making it more acceptable to business, Quinn hasn’t budged, insisting that a paid-sick-leave law would hurt small businesses.

Still, proponents of the bill are probably right that, with or without Quinn, momentum is moving in their direction. It’s not just Portland and Philadelphia, or even the dozens of other efforts that are now underway across the country. Nor, looking internationally, is it just the generous Nordic states. The vast majority of the world’s countries, rich and poor, already offer paid sick leave. 

McGill Institute for Health and Social Policy

Here a visual is worth many words. Thanks to Jody Heymann’s Raising the Global Floor project, we have one (you may also click on the image to the right to enlarge). Note the United States is a giant red anomaly in a mostly blue world. The red represent the zero paid sick days we guarantee annually, while the shades of blue are the various amounts of time other countries offer. (In the vast swaths of navy, which includes the Democratic Republic of the Congo—the very poorest country in the world—sick workers get 26 weeks or more off paid per year.) 

Most of these countries passed paid sick leave protections in the past few decades, as women entered the workforce in large numbers—and fewer families had a parent at home to take care of a sick kid. But, as the last week showed us, it’s not too late for us to catch up. “We are finally in this country having the national dialogue that they had in Sweden and other countries 40 years ago,” says Appelbaum.

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