Grassroots Change
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Paid Sick Days Champions Expect More Wins in 2015

May 26, 2015

The national movement for paid sick days started in 2003, when a small group of advocates for low-wage women wanted to build on the nation’s first paid family leave law, passed in California in 2002. But the group knew it also needed to promote protections for routine, short-term sicknesses for workers and their families.

Family leave is needed from time to time when an employee requires longer periods of time off work to care for new baby or a serious personal illness or that of a parent, spouse or child, whereas earned sick days are needed by workers to recover from a short-term illness or injury or care for children or another loved one. According to Ellen Bravo, who was part of the group, they aimed to address the problem that many low-wage women faced of having to cycle on and off public assistance.

Ellen Bravo
Ellen Bravo

“A lot of the reason that women wound up on welfare [was] being fired for being a good parent,” said Bravo. She said since many women she worked with didn’t earn paid sick days and were stuck in a cycle of poverty, partly because they had to choose between working and taking care of their families. “People would get jobs, leave welfare, but then lose them again because of family responsibilities.”

So the group wanted to create a new model to share ideas, lessons and resources among local communities, and to build a national movement. That was how Family Values @ Work, the 21-state coalition Bravo now directs, was born in 2004.

Since then, 18 cities and three states have passed paid sick day laws. Several other cities and states, including Oregon, New Jersey and Maryland, have active bills working their way through the legislature. There’s a federal paid sick days bill pending in Congress, and the White House has also taken up the issue with its “Lead on Leave” tour, with senior officials organizing round table discussions and town hall meetings across the country to promote state and local paid sick day policies. Despite the momentum, Bravo said advocates have to maintain focus.

“There’s always a need for a big push,” she said. “Whatever the provision, the opposition is spending a lot of money and totally determined to try to stop it.”

Industry groups including the American Legislative Exchange Council, the National Restaurant Association, and various branches of the US Chamber of Commerce have all opposed paid sick day requirements.

One tactic these groups use is to pass preemption bills that prohibit localities from setting higher standards than the state – even if a state standard is non-existent. Pennsylvania’s legislature wants to enact a new law that would retroactively overturn Philadelphia’s recent paid sick days ordinance. Oregon is currently considering such a provision in its statewide paid sick days bill. Bravo said some state legislators who support paid sick days believe it will be easier to get a statewide bill passed with a preemption clause and think it’s an acceptable “compromise,” but she urges them to look at the big picture.

“If you include a clause that says this will be the standard and no cities can go above it, … it sets a bad precedent,” said Bravo. “It furthers an agenda that’s being promoted by ALEC and giant corporations. It adds to the attack on democracy and goes hand in hand with efforts to limit who can vote. We shouldn’t limit what people can vote for.”

To date, the paid sick days movement has been most successful on the East and West coasts. But Bravo is optimistic about the Midwest building on the momentum. She said Minneapolis and Chicago have proposals in the works, and the needs of these jurisdictions are rooted in the unique conditions of these communities. She said the Family Values @ Work network supports the work of the grassroots advocates on the ground.

“The main role of our network is to help, [to] learn from the lessons and successes of our peers,” she said. “And then to make the movement visible on a national level. To make it clear this is not happenstance… This is a trend, and momentum is growing.”

Bravo’s ultimate goal is to create a critical mass of state and local laws that will propel a national standard. Reflecting on the movement’s 11-year history, Bravo shares some lessons for success:

  • Invest in local and statewide coalitions. Realize these organizations need deep roots into local communities and that they take time to grow.
  • Diverse coalitions mean engaging with traditional and non-traditional partners. For example: gender justice, racial justice, same-sex families, labor, businesses, seniors, educators and chronic illness support groups.
  • Workers’ stories are powerful tools to counter industry’s attempts to minimize the issue.
  • Change the narrative. The media initially took on this issue as worker vs. business. The movement changed the frame to discuss how paid sick days can boost the economy.
  • Use business owners against business lobbyists. Bring on small business partners who will speak out against representatives of giant corporations who claim to speak for all businesses.
  • Build political alliances. Identify a political champion as well as other elected officials who will organize colleagues for your issue.