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Paid Sick Day Advocates in Philadelphia Fight State Preemption

January 23, 2014

Despite two mayoral vetoes within three years, advocates for paid sick days in Philadelphia are confident they’ll eventually prevail. They’ve made marked progress during their five years of pushing for this measure: They built a powerful coalition with more than 100 member organizations, and succeeded in granting paid (or “earned”) sick days for city workers, as well as certain employees of private companies and nonprofits that contract with the city.

Marianne Bellesorte is the vice president of policy, strategy and communications for PathWays PA, a leader in the campaign to require paid sick days for Philadelphia’s entire workforce. She said even councilmembers who voted against the latest paid sick day bill in 2013 acknowledge that, “it’s not a matter of if, it’s a matter of when.”

But before Bellesorte and her colleagues can continue to push at the local level, they must fight a state preemption bill that would eliminate local control over paid and unpaid sick days, as well as earned vacation time. Introduced in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives in October 2013, the Leave Policy Act quickly cleared the Labor and Industry Committee and now stands poised for a full House vote.

Bellesorte says her organization has had to shift focus away from proactively pressing for a local policy, to defeating the state preemption bill. But for her, it’s another opportunity to build a grassroots movement for paid sick days.

“Preemption can actually be a way that we can let more people know about the movement,” she said. “If preemption passes, that will make it more difficult, but it also gives us an opportunity to take this fight to the state level. That would be our next move, to work fully on a [state] paid sick days bill.”

Almost 40 percent of Pennsylvania’s workers currently lack access to paid sick days. Many of them, said Bellesorte, are low-wage workers, women, and those employed in the service sector: in restaurants, health care, child-care and nursing home facilities.

“That puts [the workers] at huge risk of losing their pay or losing their jobs because of one illness,” said Bellesorte. “And it may not even be their illness. It might be a child or a parent who is really in need of some care and attention.”

To counter industry groups that support preemption, such as the National Restaurant Association and its state affiliates, Bellesorte said she receives support from advocates who’ve worked to defeat a similar preemption bill in Florida.

“It’s been really helpful to already have a sense of what the opposition might do,” she said, “or how they might move forward. … By seeing what’s happened in Florida and some of the other states, the reasons that the opposition might use to try to promote preemption, and ways we can counter those reasons.”

Bellesorte and the Coalition for Healthy Families and Workplaces are currently lobbying House members, both Republicans and Democrats, to defeat preemption. She knows she will need bipartisan support, and plans to fully utilize the statewide network she helped build.

“We have representation from all parts of the state,” she said, “which means we’re in a better position to reach legislators from their home districts and talk to them about why this bill is so important and why it’s so bad for the state.”

While the bill was temporarily tabled in December 2013, many advocates believe preemption supporters will push for passage by the end of 2014.

Once the state preemption bill is defeated, Bellesorte plans to return fighting to provide paid sick days to Philadelphia’s workers.

“We expect it to come up again in Philadelphia,” she said, “and we expect it to succeed.”