Fighting for Paid Sick Leave

Fighting for Paid Sick Leave

By Jennifer Liberto


Getting sick is already no fun. Much worse if you lose income and then your job.

By Jennifer Liberto

Ellen Bravo once sneaked into a corporate conference held to teach companies how to kick her out. She has shut down political superstars like Pat Buchanan and the late Robert Novak on national television when they said dumb things about sexual harassment in the workplace. And when she teaches college-level women’s studies, she tells OZY she’s still explaining that feminists aren’t “humorless, hairy, man-hating women.” But perhaps her biggest breakthrough in 30-plus years of advocating for workers’ rights came in the past year, pushing for paid sick leave through her Milwaukee-based Family Values @ Work network. 

It’s one of the more polarizing issues of our time. According to a study funded by the National Federation of Independent Businesses, paid sick leave would cost Massachusetts small businesses alone $8.4 billion over five years. But workers, of course, see it another way, and Bravo is one of their strongest and most successful voices. Indeed, despite Republican electoral victories, workers scored some important wins this year thanks in large part to her group’s coordination and support of hundreds of other coalitions in 21 states to knock on doors and talk to voters about paid sick leave. Last month, Massachusetts voters required paid sick leave, joining those in Connecticut and California. Similar measures also passed in Trenton and Montclair in New Jersey and Oakland, California. Workers in 15 cities can now earn paid leave, three times the number of cities and states as in 2013. 

The gains grew from a 10-year effort organized by hundreds of people and spearheaded by Bravo. “Talk about grit — it took years before they had a victory,” said fellow organizer Karen Nussbaum, executive director of Working America, an AFL-CIO group. Nussbaum gave Bravo her first job organizing. “Now she’s opened the floodgates.” 

Talk about grit — it took years before they had a victory, but she never gave up.

— Karen Nussbaum, Working America

The financial argument against paid sick has gained a lot of traction in the opposite direction.  NFIB spokesman Jack Mozloom said mandatory paid sick leave can burden small businesses with a new cost they can’t afford, forcing them to cut jobs or hours. “We don’t oppose paid leave as a benefit,” said Mozloom.”When government imposes a mandate, it creates winners and loser and we think that’s inappropriate.”

In 11 states, legislatures have banned cities from passing paid sick leave measures, a move promoted by the business-backed American Legislative Exchange Council and groups like the National Restaurant Association, whose membership includes publicly traded Yum Brands, which must contend with thousands of KFC, Taco Bell and Pizza Hut franchises in cities across the country. Wisconsin reversed a paid sick leave win in Bravo’s hometown of Milwaukee. 

ellen bravo

Students crowd around as author Ellen Bravo signs her book Taking on the Big Boys.

But Bravo, 70, says momentum’s in her favor. A Jewish American who grew up in Cleveland, Bravo traces her sense of justice to trying to understand the Holocaust. She protested for civil rights while studying the classics at Cornell University. In solidarity with a Greek sweetheart, she marched and organized against the military junta in Greece. “My early years were spent having more cognizance that these were long-term fights,” said Bravo, who has taught women’s studies over the years, most recently at University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. 

It was later, after she became a mother of two sons, that she grew more interested in family work policies. Bravo returned to a clerical job within a few weeks of having her second baby. She threw her back out, and her doctor told her she needed to lie flat for a week — impossible for a working mom to a 6-week-old and a toddler with the chicken pox. Her doctor told her to ask her “mother or housekeeper” to help, neither of which was an option for her or many of her colleagues, she said. When her family moved to Milwaukee in 1981, Bravo took a job at the local phone company, where she was told she couldn’t be sick for the first five years on the job. Those experiences and others led Bravo to start a Milwaukee chapter of 9to5, National Association for Working Women, a group founded by Nussbaum in the 1970s. The stories of 9to5 members became the basis for the hit movie 9 to 5, staring Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin and Dolly Parton. Bravo would later spend a decade as the national executive director of 9to5. 

She’s one of those exhaustively active people. When’s she’s not traveling for work, she hits the gym every day: Zumba four times a week and weightlifting the other days, with Bikram yoga in between. She’s written three books, one co-authored, and has a novel due out next year. 

She understands how to build a movement…

— Saru Jayaraman, Restaurant Opportunities Centers United

In 2004, Bravo left 9to5 to focus on writing, teaching and working for her new venture, Family Values @ Work, which focuses on paid family leave as well as paid sick leave. “She understands how to build a movement … by lifting up the work of a lot of other people and bringing them together,” says Saru Jayaraman, co-founder of the Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, which promotes the interests of restaurant workers. She also brought businesses on board. Bravo likes to talk about Seattle-based Plum Restaurants owner Makini Howell, who said she doesn’t want her employees to worry about lost pay when they get sick, because the one cost she couldn’t afford was “losing good employees.” 

And, of course, there are stories of restaurant, hotel and retail workers who face tough choices between caring for feverish kids and losing their jobs. “You have people who … say, ‘Nobody would fire someone for being pregnant or for staying home with a sick child,’ ” she said. “Sadly, we’d bring in lots of workers who talk about how it happened to them.”

The first city to vote to require paid sick leave was San Francisco in 2006, followed by a smattering of other wins until 2013. It’s not exactly a glide path, but she’s moving the issue forward.

Photography by Tamara Didenko for OZY