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How corporate lobbies are trying to delay justice

March 9, 2015

by Ellen Bravo, executive director of Family Values @ Work

We’ve all seen a toddler who realizes they’re losing the game and knocks all the pieces to the floor. It doesn’t change the outcome – that kid still loses. But the other players realize there’ll be an unfair delay of game.

Such is the sorry tale of corporate lobby groups faced with wins for paid sick days campaigns popping up all over the country. They can’t stop them on the ballot, and more and more often, they come away empty-handed in the halls of City Council or the state legislature. What to do?

Buy time. Stir up trouble. Delay justice. That’s what happening today in Trenton, New Jersey and the state of Pennsylvania.

Last year seven New Jersey towns joined Jersey City to adopt earned sick days initiatives. (Another city passed an ordinance just this week.) Two of the wins came through November ballot initiatives, in Montclair and also in Trenton, the state capitol, where more than 85 percent voted in favor of the ordinance. On the eve of implementation there, a group of big business associations (including the New Jersey State Chamber of Commerce and the New Jersey Restaurant Association) filed a lawsuit in an effort to rewrite the rules of our democracy.

Ellen Bravo
Ellen Bravo

The lobbyists use a variety of bogus legal challenges. Here’s my favorite: they claim earned sick time unfairly raises the minimum wage because a worker is paid when they’re away from the job recovering. But that worker doesn’t get a single penny in extra pay. Earned sick time means the worker won’t be DOCKED pay when sick. A minimum wage earner without paid sick days is, in fact, a sub-minimum wage earner.

Phyllis Salowe-Kaye, executive director of NJ Citizen Action and spokesperson for the NJ Time to Care Coalition, summed up the views of the dozens of groups involved in the fight for earned sick days: “It’s totally outrageous that the business lobby would argue that a statewide earned sick time law should take precedence while at the same time doggedly resisting passage of that very statewide bill. Trenton voters overwhelmingly approved the city’s earned sick time ordinance, and the enforcement of that ordinance is well within the city’s police powers.” Being forced to litigate this, she noted, would be an enormous waste of taxpayer money.

In Pennsylvania, lawmakers twice tried and twice failed to pass a bill prohibiting local governments from passing their own local earned sick days measures. Such ‘preemption’ bills are a favorite of the American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC, as a way to stop local action raising standards for working families. As Mark Pertschuk of Grassroots Change points out, these conservatives find it more efficient to wield influence in 50 capitols than in thousands of city halls.

A diverse coalition in Philly has now passed such a bill and this time prevailed on the mayor to sign it. According to Attorney Sherry Leiwant, co-director of A Better Balance, normally new laws passed by the Pennsylvania legislature are not retroactive. Nevertheless, the legislator behind this attempt – a member of ALEC—has added a new trick, a provision to make the law retroactive to January 1.

For the workers involved, this is no game. It means people have to go to work sick or risk losing a paycheck or a job just for listening to the pediatrician who says, “Keep your child home until that fever breaks.” And for cancer survivors like Marianne Bellesorte, it means anxiety every time they have to go to the store or to a restaurant, knowing the workers there likely lack paid sick days and might pass on a germ that could devastate a fragile immune system.

Workers in Philadelphia and Trenton can’t afford delays. They want to be like Erin, a seamstress in Portland who was among the Family Values @ Work members who wrote the president in January urging him to talk about paid sick days in his State of the Union address. Erin described a day when she woke up barely able to move without help and unable to go in to work. “After a few minutes of stress and panic, I realized that I had paid sick days! I’m so grateful … because I live paycheck-to-paycheck and no longer have to worry about my finances when I am sick for a day or two.”

This article originally appeared in The Hill, on March 9, 2015.