Economy

Will Your State Make Life Easier For Working Families Next Year?

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This Congress is on track to be the least productive in history. Yet 2014 was a year of significant progress for policies that address work and family balance. That’s because of a flurry of action at the state and local level.

This year saw the passage of 12 paid sick leave laws, including two states, compared to just one state and six cities with these laws on the books at the end of 2013. Five states — Delaware, Illinois, Minnesota, New Jersey, and West Virginia — passed Pregnant Workers Fairness Acts, laws that require employers to give employees accommodations so that they can stay on the job through their pregnancies. And while it hasn’t passed yet, a bill in California to address erratic scheduling practices was introduced and a similar one advanced in San Francisco.

Now, activists and organizers across the country are gearing up for another year of action.

Paid sick days are poised to be another bright spot. Fights are expected to either begin or ratchet up in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Oregon, Michigan, Minnesota, Vermont, Washington, and West Virginia. Cities like Tacoma and Philadelphia, which already saw significant efforts, are likely to try again, while activists in some states that flipped Republican in the midterm elections may turn their attention to cities and municipalities where they might make more progress.

New Jersey in particular was a hotbed of activity on this front: seven different cities in the state passed a sick leave law this year. And activists aren’t done yet. “The overall objective for this campaign has been and continues to be passing a strong statewide earned sick day bill that will get to the governor’s desk,” Analilia Mejia, executive director of New Jersey Working Families, told ThinkProgress. The strategy has been to pass as many bills at the municipal level to build support and momentum for a law covering the whole state. And Mejia said such a bill is expected to be up for a vote in the state’s assembly and senate in the next couple of weeks, which her group “absolutely” expects to pass. “Then essentially the question becomes, will [Republican Governor] Chris Christie do the right thing on behalf of working families,” she said. While Christie is conservative on many issues, he did sign the state’s Pregnant Worker Fairness Act into law.

In the meantime, however, the New Jersey activists plan to keep picking off cities. “I’ve had several several conversations with mayors and members of councils who are interested in adopting this, asking for model language, who are interested in the data and information and access to workers that we have who could speak on this issue,” she said. “I do fully anticipate that there will be a few more [city-level bills passed] before we have our statewide bill.”

Vermont is all but ready to pass a bill, but the question is whether lawmakers have the bandwidth to get it done next year alongside other big ticket items on the agenda. As James Haslam, director of the Vermont Workers’ Center, pointed out, the biggest issues they’ll be working on are universal health care and education funding. “In a normal situation, to me, thereā€™d be no doubt that paid sick days would get done this year,” he said. “Only thing I think would stop it is they just don’t have the bandwidth to tackle it with these other debates.” A statewide coalition has been pushing for a bill for eight years, but last year Haslam’s group “thrust it” onto lawmakers’ radars. It likely would have passed if it weren’t for a wave of opposition from business groups and a decision from the governor to focus on increasing the state’s minimum wage. But it’s likely to come up again next year. “It is very much seen as something that still needs to get done,” he said. “We have strong Democratic control over the legislature and a Democratic governor, and there’s really no good reason for them not to do it.”

By contrast, the efforts in Michigan have just begun. While a bill was introduced last year and another will be introduced at the beginning of next year, activists are just beginning conversations with lawmakers, according to Marissa Luna of Engage Michigan. “We’re just trying to gauge where lawmakers are at as far as their support,” she said. Seven other groups have joined hers to form a coalition focused on passing a statewide bill.

Oregon is another state that next year could join the three — California, Connecticut, and Massachusetts — that have passed bills. “Oregon is entirely blue,” Vicki Shabo, vice president at the National Partnership for Women & Families, pointed out. “Paid sick days is something they’ve been working on for a long time.”

More cities could also join the 16 that already passed sick leave bills. The Philadelphia city council has twice passed a bill, and Mayor Michael Nutter (D) has vetoed it twice. But times may be changing. He has since convened a task force on the issue, which is due to give him its recommendations on December 1. That will likely lead to a “renewed effort in Philadelphia to capitalize” on the report, Shabo said. A statewide bill may also be on the agenda, given that incoming Governor Tom Wolf (D) reportedly wants one.

Support had been building for a statewide bill in West Virginia, but now organizers are reconsidering their options after the midterm elections flipped statehouse control into Republican hands. “We’re still moving forward, but it’s very unlikely that something will pass this year,” Erin Snyder, health policy analyst at the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy, said. That means her group and others may turn their attention to cities and municipalities. The state has a pilot program that allows cities to apply to have the authority to implement ordinances and rules regardless of state law, so “at this point we’re targeting those cities,” she said, seeing how receptive city councils may be.

Shabo at the National Partnership expects to see more Pregnant Workers Fairness Acts passed next year, such as in Rhode Island, where a bill was already introduced, and Oregon, where Democrats are looking at a wide range of family-friendly laws. But they don’t necessarily require an all-blue legislature to pass. Each one passed last year did so with either unanimous or bipartisan support. So many state laws have been adopted, in fact, that the United Parcel Service said one motivation for changing its pregnancy accommodation policies was to make them uniform across the country.

Paid family leave has moved much more slowly than other issues. So far three states have implemented programs. But some cities, like Seattle, may consider it next year. And the Department of Labor awarded $500,000 to Massachusetts, Montana, Rhode Island, and Washington, D.C. to fund feasibility studies on implementing leave. New York also has an active effort to implement a program, but as Shabo pointed out, the legislature is in Republican hands.

Still, activists feel there has been a sea change on all of these issues. “I think this year was the first time that we really saw changing the workplace in America becoming front and center as a core economic concern,” said Lisa Guide, associate director at the Rockefeller Family Fund. “In the past, I think it’s been somewhat marginalized as quote unquote work/family balance…. [Now] we’ve seen so many elected officials and policymakers around the country putting workplace reform right in the center of an economic security package.” Nearly a quarter of the candidates who ran for governor, U.S. Senate, or U.S. House in the midterms talked about their positions on work/family issues on their websites, according to an analysis from the National Partnership, and those who did so were 8 percent more likely to win compared to those who didn’t.