In November, Voters Get Their Say on Sick Days

The Politics of Calling in Sick

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Why you should care

If you work, you count on being able to take time off if you get sick or need to care for someone who is. But in the U.S., there’s no guarantee your company will allow that.

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Got the flu? Or a new baby? Perhaps a little one with chicken pox? In most countries, your employer must pay your wages if you stay home sick or to care for others. Not in America.

But a growing grassroots movement aims to change that — starting with paid sick leave.

Already it’s met some success. This past weekend, California became the second state in the country to mandate sick leave for employees. Others may join soonSick-day measures are on at least a half-dozen ballots in November, including in Massachusetts, Oakland, California, and several cites in New Jersey. At least six more states will take up the issue in 2015. They include Colorado, Maryland and Vermont. 

Family-friendly policies let Democrats demonstrate pro-women bona fides, and accuse Republicans who oppose such measures of stoking a ”war on women.”


“We understand these are building blocks to a national standard,” says Ellen Bravo, who directs Family Values @ Work, an umbrella organization for state coalitions pushing paid leave. She hopes this fall’s vote will boost momentum, upping the issue’s profile and making 2015 “a tipping point to going national.”

It’s part of a fierce partisan battle for women voters, who are much likelier than men to take time off to care for a sick child or an elderly parent. Family-friendly policies let Democrats demonstrate some pro-women bona fides — and accuse Republicans who oppose such measures of stoking a “war on women.” That sort of rhetoric is already playing big in top 2014 races, and it’s likely to intensify ahead of 2016, especially if Dems nominate Hillary Clinton or another woman for president.

“There is only one developed country in the world that does not offer paid maternity leave, and that is us,” President Barack Obama told an audience in June at the White House Summit on Working Families. “And that is not the list you want to be on by your lonesome.” The U.S. is also one of a few countries that do not have national requirements on paid sick days.

Business groups and conservatives have resisted paid leave, arguing that it stifles job creation and imposes heavy administrative burdens. Groups like the National Federation of Independent Business have released studies warning that future legislation will squelch employment, but they’ve mustered little real-world evidence.

Workers’ advocates say data tend to refute those claims. In a 2011 survey on San Francisco’s paid sick-day ordinance, enacted in 2006, 14 percent of businesses said the ordinance hurt profits, but 71 percent said it didn’t. Administration was harder, with 31 percent of firms saying it was “somewhat” or “very difficult” to implement the ordinance, and 54 percent saying it was “not difficult” or “not too difficult.” The survey was conducted by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, which supports paid leave. While it gives some ammunition to paid-leave opponents, it counters their most potent claim: that paid leave is an outright job killer. 

Such data have underpinned a city-by-city and state-by-state campaign by a coalition of labor unions, women’s organizations and community groups that now can count at least 10 major victories since 2006. Most are in progressive havens like Connecticut, Seattle and New York City. The goal is to get to a critical mass of cities and states that will force action from the federal government, which hasn’t touched leave for decades.

In 1993, Congress passed the Family Medical Leave Act, which requires employers to offer unpaid maternity leave or unpaid family health leave to certain employees. But the FMLA’s exemptions are gaping: They exclude the more than 40 percent of people who work part time or for small, exempt companies. Disproportionately, they’re women, single, minorities and those with a high school education or less.

Activists say that ballot initiatives can compensate for lack of legislative clout. Oakland is a good example. After it became clear that some members of the Oakland City Council would fight tooth and nail against a proposal that would raise the minimum wage and require five paid sick days, a grassroots coalition gathered enough signatures to put the proposal directly on the November ballot. Advance polling shows strong support from voters.

The Oakland Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce tried to get a counterproposal on the ballot that would have created an extended phase-in for the wage hike and required fewer sick days. The chamber argued its proposal offered a more “sustainable approach to achieving fair and sustainable compensation,” while keeping “Oakland’s economy booming.”

After Milwaukee enacted paid sick leave, Gov. Scott Walker pushed a state measure that nullified it. Florida and Oklahoma have followed suit.


But it didn’t get approval in the city council, and the group has since stopped its public campaign. Chamber representatives did not reply to interview requests. It’s still possible, though, that state or national pro-business organizations could get involved.

There’s pushback elsewhere. In San Diego, which enacted a minimum wage hike and paid-leave law on Aug. 18, the California Restaurant Association and San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce are gathering signatures for a 2016 ballot initiative to repeal it. Just getting the needed signatures would freeze the law until the vote takes place. 

And three years after Milwaukee enacted paid sick leave requirements in 2008, Gov. Scott Walker pushed a statewide measure that nullified them. States like Florida and Oklahoma have followed suit. And in the past, pro-business groups have beat back legislative proposals in MaineMaryland and New Hampshire.

All of which underscores why Bravo and others hope the statewide measures create a platform for federal action. But for politicians in Washington to get on board, it first has to prove to be the vote-getter they promise.

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