Despite losses in Congress, workers gain ground in state and local elections

Despite losses in Congress, workers gain ground in state and local elections

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By Mariko Yoshihara

Although the Republicans had a sizable victory in last night’s midterm elections, and even picked up a few seats in the California state legislature, workers in California and across the U.S. scored some major victories.  The Republican gains in Congress will surely spell doom for Democrat-led efforts to advance workers’ rights at the federal level, like banning forced arbitration, raising the federal minimum wage, and providing paid sick days to workers, but as we saw last night, states, cities, and counties are moving ahead on their own to serve the needs of workers.

For example, four states last night — Alaska, Arkansas, Nebraska and South Dakota — all voted to increase their state minimum wage.  Proving that the minimum wage is not a partisan issue, voters in these four deeply conservative states approved the measures by sizable margins.  Two-thirds of voters in Arkansas, Walmart’s home state, approved a $2.25 wage increase to set a $8.50 per hour minimum.  Alaska will increase its minimum wage to $9.75 over the next 14 months and Nebraska will raise its minimum wage to $9 by January 2016.  South Dakota approved a minimum wage increase to $8.50 next year that will increase annually to match inflation.  With Tuesday’s victories, 17 states have now opted to raise the minimum wage since just last year.

Two cities in California also voted to raise their local minimum wage.  Oakland will boost its minimum wage to $12.25 next year and San Francisco will gradually increase its minimum wage to $15 by 2018.  Eureka was the only minimum wage measure to fail in last night’s election.  Meanwhile, Illinois and several counties in Wisconsin pushed the issue forward by approving non-binding referendums calling for minimum wage boosts.  According to Economic Policy Institute, an estimated 680,000 low-wage workers will be getting a raise based on last night’s results.

Workers also scored major wins for paid sick days last night.  Voters in Massachusetts and the cities of Oakland, California and Montclair and Trenton, New Jersey approved measures to provide paid time off for workers who are sick or need to care for family members.  In Massachusetts, workers in companies with over 10 employees can earn up to to five paid sick days a year, and those who work for smaller companies will be eligible for unpaid sick days.  In Montclair and Trenton, New Jersey, workers who provide food service, child care or home health care, or who work for companies with 10 or more employees, can earn up to 5 days of paid sick leave each year. All other employees have access to three paid sick days.  In Oakland, California, workers in companies with more than 10 workers can take up to nine sick days a year, and, in smaller companies, up to five paid sick days.  Oakland’s new law will provide up to three times as many paid sick days as the new California law that was passed this year, which provides only 3 days of paid sick days.  After last night’s results, three U.S. states and sixteen cities have now passed paid sick days legislation, including two states and ten cities in this year alone.

The growing efforts by state and local governments to move this kind of legislation forward reflects the electorate’s dissatisfaction and frustration with a Congress that fails to act.  However, despite the widespread support of these efforts by voters on both sides of the aisle, as we saw last night, much of the country still sides with GOP candidates who are fundamentally opposed to these exact issues.  Will Republican lawmakers from Alaska, Arkansas, Nebraska and South Dakota, now support a national minimum wage increase?  Probably not.  Unfortunately, politics is much more than just casting votes based on the views and needs of your constituents.

Now that Republicans control both houses of Congress, it is almost certain that the national workers’ rights agenda will continue to go nowhere.  Until we see a change in power in Congress or the Republicans decide to listen to the majority of their constituents, we will have to count on state and local governments to work past partisan gridlock to address the needs of workers.

Paid Sick Days – Healthy for California

Paid Sick Days – Healthy for California

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By Elizabeth Kristen

This week, California’s “Paid Sick Days” bill cleared another hurdle in the Senate Labor Committee where it passed on a party line vote.  AB 1522, by Assemblymember Gonzalez, would provide all California workers with at least three days of paid sick leave per year. The bill would also allow an employee to use leave if necessary due to domestic violence, sexual assault, or stalking.

While a provision of some sick leave is an important improvement upon California law, three days per year is simply not enough.  And the recent deletion of the private right of action, which would allow workers to enforce their rights in court, removes an important mechanism to make sure that workers actually are able to access their right to paid sick days.  California needs to adopt a more robust paid sick leave law. Doing so is critical for public health, for workers and their families, and for California’s economy.

Many workers, especially low-wage workers, do not receive any paid time off from work for their illness. This forces them to work while sick – serving food in restaurants, providing child and elder care, and ringing up purchases as cashiers.  This is bad enough for the workers themselves, but the consequences infect the economy and public health as well.

The burden to work while sick is not something that we all bear equally. Latino workers, for example, are significantly less likely to have paid sick days – only 47 percent of Latinos receive some form of paid time off, compared with 61 percent of the overall workforce. Unsurprisingly, the poorest workers also have the least access to paid sick leave. Thus, workers who can least afford to use unpaid days and who cannot afford to lose their jobs are also those least likely to have paid sick days at their disposal.  Of workers paid $65,000 or more per year, more than 80% have paid sick days; by contrast, only about a quarter of workers making less than $20,000 per year reap this important benefit.

Recognizing this disproportionate burden, several forward-thinking cities have made progress towards eliminating this difficult ultimatum by adopting paid sick leave laws. The table below shows those jurisdictions, including the size of employer covered by the paid sick days law, the maximum amount of leave provided, and whether the leave is paid or unpaid. Although eligibility and the extent of benefits vary greatly, all of these jurisdictions see healthy families and healthy economies as intimately linked, not mutually exclusive.

Paid Sick Days

Although cities have pioneered this protection, some states recognize that the cost or trappings of urban living serve as barriers for many workers and families. The state of Connecticut became the first state to adopt paid sick days in July 2011. Connecticut’s leave can be used for the worker’s own health, for the care of a child or a spouse, or for needs related to domestic violence or sexual assault. A recent report about this law found that offering paid sick days did not harm business. In fact, many businesses reported positive effects, including reduced employee turnover, reduced spread of illness, improved morale, and increased productivity, motivation, and loyalty. Eighteen months after the law took effect, more than 75% of employers were either “very supportive” or “somewhat supportive” of the new law.

Unfortunately in other states, the legislative trend has moved in the opposite direction. Ten states— Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Kansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Wisconsin — have enacted legislation to block cities from adopting paid sick leave, and fourteen other state legislatures have seen the introduction of such legislation.  In addition, Milwaukee, Wisconsin’s paid sick days bill was invalidated by a state law banning such ordinances.

Enactment of a federal law allowing workers to protect their health without sacrificing their financial or occupational wellbeing would override state laws hostile to the rights of workers. Pending national legislation—the Healthy Families Act—would provide paid sick days as well as paid safe days for victims of domestic violence, sexual assault, and stalking.  But, for the time being, “[t]he United States is the only country out of the 15 most competitive that doesn’t guarantee paid sick days to all workers, leaving 40 percent in the private sector without access to the leave.”

This coverage gap is not only embarrassing, it also is bad for workers and their families and undermines public health. By allowing workers to address their pressing health needs without sacrificing wages, paid sick leave would preempt the degeneration of illnesses into emergency situations. Without offering paid sick leave, workers must gamble with their health, and may suffer wage and job losses. In addition to these economic concerns, workers’ hardships often need to be offset by significant public assistance expenditures. Nor does the employer benefit by withholding paid sick leave from its employees: loss of productivity due to illness is twice as expensive to employers as absenteeism. These conclusions follow not only from common sense, but from the benefits reaped by workers and businesses across the state of Connecticut.

The rhetoric surrounding this debate is feverish, but the health of our economy and the health of our workers need not be at odds. Paid sick leave is the antidote to many social ills – from economic inefficiency to reliance upon public assistance. All stakeholders should endorse paid sick leave in order to promote a healthier economy, for employers and employees alike.

Elizabeth Kristen

About Elizabeth Kristen

Elizabeth Kristen is the Director of the Gender Equity & LGBT Rights Program and a senior staff attorney at Legal Aid at Work.  Ms. Kristen began her public interest career as a Skadden Fellow at Legal Aid.  Ms. Kristen graduated from University of California at Berkeley School of Law in 2001 and served as a law clerk to the Honorable James R. Browning on the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco.  In 2012-13, she served as a Harvard law School Wasserstein Public Interest Fellow.  She has been a lecturer at Berkeley Law School since 2008. Legal Aid at Work together with the California Women’s Law Center and Equal Rights Advocates make up the California Fair Pay Collaborative dedicated to engaging and informing Californians about fair pay issues.

Let’s make 2014 the year in which all American workers are guaranteed access to paid sick leave

Let’s make 2014 the year in which all American workers are guaranteed access to paid sick leave

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By Sharon Vinick

Unlike other industrialized nations, the United States does not have a national paid sick leave policy.  According to a 2011 study by the Economic Policy Institute, 40% million Americans working in the private sector are employed in jobs that do not provide paid sick time.  And, the real cost of having employees go to work when they are sick is enormous.  The Centers for Disease Prevention and Control estimates that the annual flu season, alone, costs companies $10.5 billion in lost productivity and direct medical costs.  But, momentum seems to be building in favor of passing legislation that will provide paid sick leave to all employees.

In 2007, San Francisco became the first city in the country to require that all private companies – big and small – offer paid sick days to their employees.  At the time, business groups warned that providing paid sick leave would negatively impact local business.  As it turns out, these dire predictions were entirely wrong.  According to a 2011 study by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, paid sick leave has benefitted employees without reducing employer profitability.

While it took a few years for other municipalities to follow San Francisco’s leave, by November 2013, six cities and one state had paid sick leave laws:  Connecticut, San Francisco, Washington, D.C., New York City, Jersey City (New Jersey) and Portland (Oregon).  Then, last summer, Senator Tom Harkin and Representation Rosa DeLauro introduced the “Healthy Families Act,” which would allow workers to accrue up to seven days of paid sick leave over the course of the year.  While the Act has not yet passed, each month, more states and municipalities seem to be jumping on the band wagon.  Earlier this month, the Newark City Council passed a paid sick leave ordinance, and similar legislation is under consideration in California and Washington.

The national discussion regarding paid sick leave is not limited to legislative bodies.  Earlier this month, Michael Miller of the Atlantic City Press, published an article regarding the move within New Jersey to provide paid sick leave.  And, on Monday, the New York Times published a story by Rachel Swarns which explained that cities that have adopted paid sick leave ordinances have not experienced an exodus of businesses.

But the biggest push towards providing paid sick leave to all Americans came just this week.  On Monday, during his State of the Union Address, President Obama said that “[a] mother deserves a day off to care for a sick child or sick parent without running into hardship – and you know what, a father does, too.”  This remark was widely considered to be support for national legislation requiring that private employers provide paid sick leave.  Then, two days later, actress Cynthia Nixon joined House minority leader Nancy Pelosi and a coalition of progressive groups in a “telephone town hall” in which they pushed for the passage of new legislation of paid sick leave.

Given that 74% of Americans believe that employers should be required to offer paid sick leave, it is high time that we pass legislation that guarantees all Americans access to paid sick leave.

Sharon Vinick

About Sharon Vinick

Sharon Vinick is the Managing Partner of Levy Vinick Burrell Hyam LLP, the largest women-owned law firm in the state that specializes in representing plaintiffs in employment cases. In more than two decades of representing employees, Sharon has enjoyed great success, securing numerous six and seven figure settlements and judgments for her clients. Sharon has been named by Northern California Super Lawyers for the past five years. Sharon is a graduate of Harvard Law School and UC Berkeley. In addition to being a talented attorney, Sharon is an darn good cook.

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