Opinion
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The drive to ban mandated paid sick days

Most Americans support sick days off, but corporate lobbyists are working hard to change their minds

May 6, 2014 12:00AM ET

On March 20, New York Mayor Bill DeBlasio signed a bill expanding the city’s paid-sick-day law, giving an additional 500,000 workers the right to take up to five sick days in a year to care for themselves or sick family members without losing pay. Other cities — including Seattle; Washington; Portland, Oregon; Jersey City and Newark, New Jersey; and San Francisco — have passed similar mandates (as has the state of Connecticut), creating a benefit that voters support and employees need and that many employers say is economically sustainable. In places without such laws, an estimated 40 percent of the workforce has no paid sick days, meaning that restaurant servers and retail employees often have little economic choice but to work sick, even if that means risking infecting customers and co-workers.

Despite the clear public benefit of paid sick days, a new, troubling backlash is occurring at the state level, urged on by lobbying groups such as the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), which promotes conservative legislation at the state level, and the National Restaurant Association. These organizations are pushing legislatures and governors to enact pre-emption (or kill-shot) laws to bar cities and counties from passing paid sick day mandates. With this model, state lawmakers can put an end to mandatory paid sick days, minimum wage increases and other pro-worker policies that voters and city governments have passed or are considering. It is a way of attacking a current wave of grass-roots organizing — organizing that has been gaining momentum, with recent big victories in cities such as Seattle, which just passed a minimum wage increase to $15 per hour.

In using the pre-emption model, the business lobby is taking a far more radical stance than most of the businesses that supposedly form their base; these include small businesses whose owners may support paid sick days as a way to reduce turnover and save on having to train new employees. The national lobby groups are engaging in lobbying that may ultimately harm both businesses and the public.

Eleven states have enacted paid-sick-day pre-emption laws since 2011. New research from the National Partnership for Women and Families (NPWF) shows that six more states are considering kill-shot bills. The NPWF has found that some of these bills have even more extreme consequences than just banning paid-sick-day requirements: They would also prohibit local governments from increasing the minimum wage, imposing stiffer penalties for wage theft and enacting laws that could help employees assert their rights on the job. (An NPWF map of these pre-emption bills and laws is here.) It’s a game of legislative one-upmanship that could have serious public health consequences.

Sick at work

The case for mandating that employers provide at least a few paid sick days every year is supported by both common sense and economic research.

Mary Bottari and Brendan Fischer of the watchdog group Center for Media and Democracy write that without paid sick days, workers are 150 percent more likely to show up to work sick with a contagious illness. This places co-workers and customers at risk and costs an estimated $160 billion per year in lost productivity. “An estimated 40 million workers, or 40 percent of the workforce, cannot take sick days without losing wages or possibly their jobs, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics,” add Bottari and Fischer.

Many business owners report that providing paid days off has little or no adverse impact on their bottom lines, despite much scaremongering to the contrary.

In pushing back against paid-sick-day laws, ALEC and the National Restaurant Association are ignoring many of their own constituents. Many business owners report that providing paid days off has little or no adverse impact on their bottom lines, despite much scaremongering to the contrary. In a recent surveyof business owners conducted by the Center for Economic and Policy Research and the City University of New York, about half the Connecticut business owners surveyed said that providing paid sick days hasn’t affected their costs, and others indicated that cost increases had been minimal. If support for the idea isn’t coming from business owners, where is it coming from?

Attacking democracy

The backlash against the paid-sick-day movement began in 2011, when Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker proposed a bill to overturn Milwaukee’s paid-sick-day law and prevent other Wisconsin localities from passing similar mandates. Since then, kill-shot legislation has passed in Louisiana, Arizona, Mississippi, Kansas, Tennessee and Florida (where Darden Restaurants, which owns the Olive Garden, Red Lobster and Longhorn Steakhouse chains, pushed it through the legislature). The most recent of these laws passed in Oklahoma, signed by Republican Gov. Mary Fallin.

This counterattack isn’t coming from small-business owners. It is coming from lobbying groups such as the National Restaurant Association, which has a network of state affiliates. As University of Oregon political economist Gordon Lafer recently said of the pre-emption laws, “In every state, people experience these as if they come from their local legislator or as if they’re a response to the particular problems in their state, and in fact, the laws are being written largely by ALEC.”

Corporations such as Disney and McDonald’s operate using business models that depend on a workforce of minimum-wage employees who have minimal benefits and no paid time off. But this model hurts the common good — and the productivity of the wider economy — when it functions at the expense of public health.

There is still time to stop these bills from passing. Voters in Pennsylvania, Michigan, Washington state, Alabama, Virginia and South Carolina should know that their state lawmakers are considering pre-emption legislation written by ALEC and opposed by public interest advocates. The majority of voters support paid sick days. And they have every reason to tell their elected officials to put an end to the industry-funded effort to deliver a kill shot to mandates that protect the health of millions of employees, customers and families.

Amy B. Dean is a fellow of the Century Foundation and a principal of ABD Ventures, a consulting firm that works to develop innovative strategies for organizations devoted to social change. She is a co-author, with David Reynolds, of “A New New Deal: How Regional Activism Will Reshape the American Labor Movement.”

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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