Paid sick leave: The next liberal litmus test?

Providing paid sick leave for workers is rapidly becoming a national Democratic priority. Oppose it at your peril

By Randy LoBasso

Published March 29, 2013 4:33PM (EDT)

New York City mayoral frontrunner Christine Quinn     (AP)
New York City mayoral frontrunner Christine Quinn (AP)

There's a new must-support issue for ambitious Democrats across the nation: paid sick leave. And if you want to see how important it has become, just look to the current race for New York City mayor.

Before Thursday, City Council speaker Christine Quinn (generally an ally of Mayor Michael Bloomberg) hemmed and hawed for three years over whether to put forth a paid sick leave bill, despite the fact that eight in 10 New Yorkers support it. The issue placed her in an uncomfortable bind, trapped between Bloomberg and the business community (all of whom oppose it) -- and workers and unions on the other side.

But after previously using her power to block the bill (despite the majority of the City Council supporting it), Quinn realized her situation had become  politically untenable. And on Thursday, a compromise was reached that requires companies with 15 or more workers to offer employees at least five paid sick days. As the New York Times noted, the deal represents a "raw display of political muscle by a coalition of labor unions and liberal activists.

A similar fight has taken shape in Philadelphia. Earlier this month, the city councilman responsible for earned sick time legislation came face-to-face with the mayoral administration that’d been fighting against his bill for over two years. A member of the health commission in the local City Council, Democrat Bill Greenlee became visibly distraught when the Democratic administration of Mayor Michael Nutter sent its director of commerce to testify to the health committee, instead of the health commissioner.

“The truth is, a big part of this issue is about the health of Philadelphians, the health of low-income workers,” Greenlee told commerce director Alan Greenberger, the latter of whom claimed a potential paid sick leave law in Philadelphia would hurt the city’s reeling economy. “And to steal Jack Nicholson’s line,” the councilman continued, “‘you can’t handle the truth,’ OK?”

The bill passed, but Nutter — who made headlines again and again last fall while relentlessly campaigning for President Barack Obama — is expected to veto the legislation, as he did Greenlee’s original incarnation of the bill in 2011. And if he does (he has until April 4 to make up his mind), he’ll be making an increasingly unpopular decision on an issue that’s becoming part of the national Democratic platform — and a bipartisan one across the country.

Multiple versions of paid sick leave -- which allows workers without benefits (often part-timers and low-wage employees) to earn a certain number of days off per year -- have gone into effect throughout the country. Though opposed and lobbied-against by the American Legislative Exchange Council, earned sick days have become the law in San Francisco; Seattle; Portland, Ore.; Washington, D.C.; Long Beach, Calif.; and the state of Connecticut.

Studies show that covering workers with earned sick leave helps lower healthcare costs, strengthens worker loyalty and increases worker productivity for the 40 percent of private sector workers and 80 percent of low income workers who lack the ability to take a day off while sick and get paid for it.

Polling that took place around several potential earned sick time bills in 2011 showed strong, bipartisan support for such legislation. In Connecticut, 73 percent of voters were found in favor, while 24 percent opposed, according to polling conducted by the progressive Anzalone Liszt Grove Research. In Denver, which was considering paid sick leave legislation (opposed by Denver Mayor Michael Hancock and Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, both Democrats), Anzalone found 65 percent support.

A post-2012 election poll by Lake Research Partners and the Tarrance Group found similar, albeit stronger results: fully 86 percent of nationwide voters would support earned sick days, including 96 percent of Democrats.

“It transcends party lines,” says Molly Murphy, senior associate at Anzalone Liszt Grove. “You tend to see much more intensity in favor of this type of policy, compared to other policies in the news that are polled, because I think this issue sort of transcends politics and it’s just not something that when people hear about it, think this must be some type of political policy.”

But the opposition by business groups is strenuous. Some politicians and big business interests have continually noted such laws would hurt local and state economies by putting more regulations and costs on business, which, they claim, would then be passed on to the consumer — even though, in the restaurant industry at least, the minimum wage for tipped earners in many states has stood at $2.13 per hour since 1991. Comcast, for instance, spent $108,400 lobbying against the bill in Philadelphia in 2012.

The issue affects more than the workers getting the paid sick leave; think about customers getting food from sick workers. It’s hard to find a former or current restaurant worker who hasn’t wrestled through a workday under the weather. “What happens just as often as finding someone to pick up your shift is you can’t find someone to pick up your shift and you go in and work anyway,” Fabricio Rodriguez of the Philadelphia Restaurant Opportunities Center, a restaurant workers advocacy group, told me late last year. “Almost everyone we spoke to who worked sick said, ‘I didn’t want to go. I didn’t think it was the right thing to do. I thought it was a dangerous thing.’”

Of the 95 percent of restaurant workers who lack paid sick time off, about 60 percent have reported working while sick, according to a report from ROC.

“You’ve got to give people the opportunity to help themselves, and if we don’t allow people to get taken care of, in the long run we are going to pay for it — through hospitalizations, through passing on things to other people, infecting each other,” noted Neva White, senior health educator at the Center for Urban Health in Philadelphia, during a restaurant worker free flu shot promotion in Philadelphia this past January. She noted earned sick time “just makes sense from a proactive standpoint.”

And whether or not local municipality Democrats are willing to catch on, the federal government may force them. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., called for paid sick leave legislation at the federal level earlier this week. She used the 20th anniversary of the Family and Medical Leave Act to make her case.

How important is the issue to business interests? ALEC is pushing legislation that allows state governments to overrule local municipalities on issues like sick time. Gov. Walker of Wisconsin already did just that to a three-year-old earned sick leave bill passed in Milwaukee by voter referendum. A similar effort is underway in Washington state to overturn Seattle’s paid sick leave law. Republicans overruling municipality laws is quickly becoming the best tactic to stop economic and social progress in red states.

Earlier this month, John Podesta, chairman of the Center for American Progress Action Fund, proposed the same argument at the Democratic Municipal Officers Breakfast. The liberal heavyweight spent most of his time talking paid sick leave, noting that ALEC’s harsh tactics against such legislation should be reason enough to give the legislation some thought.

“Sick employees cost businesses time and money,” he said. “Workers with access to paid sick leave are nearly one-third less likely to be injured on the job, which reduces costs to employers.” He noted to the audience that he makes the case for earned sick time “as a business-friendly, Bill Clinton New Democrat.”

And yet, Democratic detractors of the law persist. Six council members voted against Philadelphia’s bill earlier this month — including two Democrats weighing runs for mayor in 2015, one of whom even claimed he was “almost there” on paid sick leave in late 2012.

But the increasing population of service workers in the U.S. can’t fight ALEC and affiliated corporate lobbyists on their own. Democrats who side with corporations against poor workers may find that stance a liability as liberal leaders make leave time a priority and Affordable Care Act provisions become law, come 2014. Corporate profits are hitting record highs as worker productivity has surged; wages, meanwhile, have fallen to their lowest share of GDP in decades. Those looking to advance in their party may discover -- like Christine Quinn -- that it is hard to win a Democratic primary without offering their support.

Randy LoBasso

Randy LoBasso is a staff writer at Philadelphia Weekly, where he writes about local, state and national politics. Follow him on Twitter: @RandyLoBasso.

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Alec Christine Quinn Labor Michael Nutter New York City Philadelphia Workers Workers' Rights