Vicki Shabo is the Director of Work and Family Programs at the National Partnership for Women & Families. The National Partnership, which is 42 years old, fought for the Pregnancy Discrimination Act in 1978 and led a nine year fight to pass the 1993 Family and Medical Leave Act, which provides twelve weeks of unpaid leave to women and men when they become parents, when they have a serious medical condition, or when they need to take care of a sick child, parent, or spouse.
Grassroots Change: Tell us about the work of the National Partnership for Women & Families, including your support for paid sick days.
Vicki Shabo: The National Partnership is dedicated to promoting fairness for women in the workplace, access to affordable health care, and policies that help men and women manage the dual demands of work and family. We believed that the Family and Medical Leave Act, passed twenty years ago, was a first step, and one of the next critical steps is paid sick days legislation, which provides workers the right to earn a minimum amount of sick time, usually one hour for every 30 or 40 hours they work. Workers can use that earned time when they are sick, need preventive medical care, or need to take care of a sick child or family member, and also, in most cases, when they or a loved one is a victim of domestic violence.
GC: Why are paid sick days important to supporting parents and families?
VS: About 40 million workers don’t have access to a single paid sick day, close to 40% of the private workforce. Millions more can’t use sick days to care for a sick child. That means that parents are forced to send sick children to school, and parents without paid sick days are five times as likely to take a child or other family member to an emergency room rather than seeing a doctor in an office setting. The US could save about $1.1 billion per year in emergency department costs if [all] workers had paid sick days.
GC: Tell us about the campaign for paid sick days, and the role that local communities have played in moving the agenda forward.
VS: The National Partnership leads a national coalition which has paid sick days as one of its primary goals, and state and local work feed the momentum that we are increasingly feeling at the federal level. Many states, including Connecticut, and the cities of San Francisco, Washington, DC, Milwaukee, Philadelphia, Seattle, Portland (Oregon), some cities in Florida and, most recently, New York City, have seen significant activity on paid sick days. Several of these jurisdictions have successfully adopted laws. In each case, a vibrant coalition played a critical role in the campaign. Businesses have also become key partners. In Seattle, for example, where a paid sick days requirement was adopted by the city council in 2011, a collaboration between local businesses and advocates made passage of the law possible.
GC: What role does grassroots advocacy play in the campaign?
VS: A lot of what I do is think about how we’re going to pass this federally, and local coalitions, energy, and victories could not be more important. The grassroots are critically important in defining the problem and identifying solutions. And local wins are giving us the evidence that paid sick days laws benefit workers and their families and have no negative impact on businesses or the economy.
GC: Does the public support paid sick days?
VS: Every poll that has been conducted has shown virtually universal support for paid sick days among Democrats, in the 70-90% range for Independents, and 60-70% support among Republican voters. However, among elected officials, you don’t see that [nonpartisan support]. The reason is that our politics are so polarized. Democrats and Republicans all get sick, and they need to take care of their children. And yet, when that filters up to elected officials the ties to [special interests] are so great that you lose the ability to have a real conversation about the polices that families need.
GC: In your view, what is the impact of preemption, in this case state preemption, on the grassroots movement that you’re part of?
VS: Unfortunately, we’re seeing a trend. It’s sobering and undeniable. There are preemption bills this year that have been introduced in 13 or so states, and several of them have passed. Last year we saw Louisiana pass preemption, and until we alerted some of the local groups on the ground, no one was paying attention to it.
The grassroots movement building that we need for our affirmative agenda is also important in fighting these preemption battles. So we now have allies in places where we never had allies before, because we’ve mobilized them and alerted them to preemption. But now we need to take the next step, which means providing resources and training to work for statewide standards.
GC: In response to state preemption, one Florida newspaper wrote: “[L]et us have this argument locally. Because if you believe in the conservative principle of local control — that government closest to the people works best — this trend of state pre-emption laws represents a dangerous slippery slope.” Does that editorial resonate with your work?
VS: Absolutely. Last year, Orange County, Florida had a very vibrant grassroots effort to put a paid sick days initiative on the ballot. Fifty thousand people signed a petition so that they could vote on the issue. It was up to the County Commission to place it on the ballot, but instead of doing that, [business lobbyists] undermined the process. A judge eventually found that this was an abuse of power, and said: “this needs to go on the next ballot,” in 2014. Voters lost their right to have it on the 2012 ballot where it most certainly would have been approved. It had more than 60% of voter support.
Instead of allowing the local vote, state legislators affiliated with the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) put forward preemption legislation. Now, Gov. Scott is poised to sign that legislation, which preempts local authority to do what voters have said they want. So it’s not just the legislature doing this out of the blue, it’s part of a coordinated attempt to thwart democracy. And, worst of all, it is hurting workers at a time when they need new policies and standards to protect their economic security in this new economy.
GC: What’s your takeaway message about the campaign for paid sick days and the role of grassroots engagement?
The takeaway message is that progress is possible, it’s happening, and local grassroots activity is instrumental in the progress that’s been made. As we work federally, grassroots activity will continue to play a central role in future progress. We know that this is not something that we can do from Washington – it has to come from the ground up.