What’s behind the move to block paid sick days for Philly’s working class?
When City Council failed to override Philadelphia Mayor Nutter’s veto of last spring’s bill that sought to mandate a minimum of 56 hours of paid sick leave for all employees at workplaces in Philadelphia, Councilman Bill Greenlee—the bill’s prime sponsor—first apologized to the 180,000 local workers who would’ve welcomed that benefit. He then promised that the Mayor’s veto meant merely a delay. “Philadelphia will have paid sick days in the future,” Greenlee declared. “It’s just a shame we won’t be at the forefront [nationwide].”
The overwhelmingly popular legislation would have required businesses with six or more employees to provide full-time workers with some earned paid time off. Philly wasn’t alone in liking the idea, which has, according to polls, gained the admiration of most Americans—garnering 74 percent approval in a June 2013 Huffington Post/YouGov poll. This time off can typically be used for doctor’s appointments, during illness or to care for sick family members.
As it turns out, though, Greenlee’s fightin’ words after the veto may have been premature. See, there’s a nationwide effort underway to make it impossible for cities like Philadelphia to pass local mandates like the one Nutter vetoed, and it’s on its way to Pennsylvania.
Last week, state Rep. Seth Grove (R-York) introduced the State Preemption for Local Mandated Leave Ordinances Act, a bill banning local municipalities, like Philadelphia, from passing paid sick-leave legislation without state government approval first. Such local actions, he said in the legislation, are a matter of “statewide concern.”
“Over the past few years, local governments across the nation have passed legislation which dictate leave requirements to businesses of all sizes,” writes Grove in a legislative memo dated September 16. “Most recently, the City of Philadelphia attempted to pass a bill that would require businesses with more than five employees to provide up to 56 hours of paid time off a year, regardless of the type of business and any current policy that is in place. The 56 hours could be used for nearly any reason. Not all businesses are the same, and a blanket policy that does not recognize these differences only hurts small businesses struggling in this current economy.”
Rep. Grove did not respond to PW’s request for comment, and was, therefore, unable to tell us whether his bill draws upon the work of the American Legislative Exchange Council, a conservative organization of businesses and foundations that produces prepackaged legislation for state legislators. In either case, Grove’s concern isn’t original: In 2011, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker signed a similar bill banning paid sick days in that state, overriding widely popular sick-leave legislation passed by 70 percent of voters in Milwaukee.
Keystone Progress, a liberal statewide advocacy organization, released a report on ALEC a couple years back, and KP says Grove’s new legislation is “no surprise at all.”
“This is what we’ve been trying to warn people about,” says KP executive director Michael Morrill. “This legislation doesn’t come from constituents. These are laws that are written by big corporations, given to legislators, then they bring them back to their home states and use them. That’s exactly what happened here, because we know there are similar bills all over the country.”
ALEC’s output doesn’t just focus on business issues, either. The recent influx of “stand your ground” gun legislation introduced and passed in several states over the last decade, as well as numerous anti-abortion laws (abortion-clinic standards, vaginal-probe standards), seems to take leads from ALEC, as do Voter ID bills. And according to the Center for Media and Democracy, a left-leaning nonprofit, Rep. Grove is a member of ALEC’s Telecommunications and Information Technology Task Force.
Toward the end of the sick-leave battle in Philadelphia this spring, a rare citywide Public Policy Polling survey found 77 percent of all Philadelphians supported a paid sick days policy similar to the one initially proposed by Councilman Bill Greenlee. Part of the reason for the idea’s widespread support has to do with who’s most affected by a lack of sick days: restaurant workers.
A study put together by the Restaurant Opportunities Center, along with economist Stephen Herzenberg of the liberal think tank Keystone Research Center, found that 95 percent of Philly restaurant workers lack paid sick days—and contrary to accepted conservative wisdom, providing it to them might actually help businesses retain employees and create better employee-employer relationships, potentially saving on otherwise costly benefits like health care.
“Our view is that the evidence is pretty clear that earned sick days doesn’t really have a cost,” says Herzenberg. “The benefits that some employers may not necessarily anticipate in advance balance the cost. This is not something that employers need to be concerned about having a big impact on their bottom line.”
Another concern: Once state Republicans begin taking local control of policy away from local governments, where does that end?
“This bill is something that would honestly take away local control from a number of municipalities, which is not something anyone wants to see happen,” says Marianne Bellasorte, of Pathways PA, a local women’s health advocacy organization. “This bill certainly could affect the health and safety of workers, and I think those are things we need to look at in the sense of: If cities are going to lose this ability across the state, what would come after that? What is the next thing to be taken away?”
Pathways lobbied hard for the paid-sick-leave bill in Philadelphia the last time around, often citing the protection it could give women—not just for female-specific health problems, but, just for instance, something similar to Washington, D.C.’s sick-leave legislation. There, the paid-sick-leave bill included “safe” days for victims of stalking, sexual assault or domestic violence.
Historically, it’s been local communities, and then states, that have driven improvements in economic, labor and social standards before such ideas caught on nationally. Grove’s bill, and others, look like attempts to quash that progressive trend.
Statewide bans on paid sick days have been introduced in at least 15 states across the country and enacted in eight. Most recently, Florida passed a near-identical law to Grove’s proposal, signed later by Republican Gov. Rick Scott, who was elected during the 2010 Tea Party takeover. Scott, of course, became governor the same time as Gov. Walker of Wisconsin and Gov. Tom Corbett here in Pennsylvania.
“This is a standard conservative bill, it’s an ALEC bill,” continues Herzrnberg. “It’s the folks nationally that want to take our country back to the 19th century. They’re making exactly the same arguments that they made against child labor laws, against first health and safety laws, against first minimum wage.”