How The Push For Paid Sick Days Became A National Movement In Just 10 Years

CREDIT: AP Photo/Andrew Harnik

President Obama meets restaurant employees ahead of issuing an executive order on paid sick leave

Ten years ago, there was not a single law in the United States guaranteeing workers the ability to take a paid day off when they get sick. Now there are 25 at the city and state level, covering more than 10 million Americans. The issue has gained so much momentum that it’s sparked action from the White House: on Labor Day, President Obama announced an executive order requiring any companies that contract with the federal government to provide at least seven paid sick days, which will impact 300,000 people directly.

Paid sick leave has gone from an issue that was totally off the radar to one garnering executive action within a decade, a rapid pace of progress. How did it get there?

The groundwork was laid by groups that built a national coalition to push the issue forward. “I don’t think it’s surprising,” Ellen Bravo, executive director of Family Values @ Work, said of paid sick leave’s successes. “It’s a result of organizing.”

Eileen Appelbaum, senior economist at the Center for Economic and Policy Research, agreed. “Advocates have gotten themselves organized,” she said. “The message is clear.” Groups like Bravo’s and the National Partnership for Women & Families began telegraphing the basic message that sick employees shouldn’t come to work, risking their health and the health of their customers, but should instead stay home to recover without losing a day’s pay or even their job. And they showed that it’s a universal need. “They made it clear that this is something that is valuable to everyone — men need it, women need it, they need it for kids, they need it for partners,” she said. “I think it has really resonated.”

Still, even with polls that showed 70 percent of Americans supporting paid sick leave requirements, in 2010 groups had only been successful in two cities: San Francisco and Washington, D.C.

But 2010 was a crucial year for the movement. That was when the issue became intensely political. “Inevitably, the way something gets elevated is it becomes a political issue, it becomes an electoral issue,” said Dan Cantor, national director of the Working Families Party (WFP).

That year, current Connecticut Governor Dannel Malloy beat out the well-financed gubernatorial campaign of Ned Lamont in the Democratic primary. Advocates had tried to pass paid sick leave legislation in the state for years but run into opposition in the Democratic-controlled legislature and governor’s office. Lamont came out against it. But Malloy, behind in the polls and thought to be the underdog against Lamont’s resources, decided to come out in favor as a way to draw a contrast.

It worked. Malloy beat Lamont two-to-one and went on to win the governor’s race. Paid sick leave “became a real fault line between the two of them, and it was widely seen as having propelled him to victory,” said Cantor, whose organization helped Malloy secure his victory and had him run on their ballot line.

With that victory achieved, Malloy pushed through paid sick days in 2011. “It hadn’t come up like that before,” said Lindsay Farrell, director of the WFP party in Connecticut. “Having it become a campaign issue and a winning campaign issue in 2010 is what helped us get it over the finish line in 2011.”

Others took notice. Advocates tried to push a bill through in New York City, but then-city council speaker Christine Quinn wouldn’t let it come to a vote. Bill de Blasio took up the issue in his race against her for the mayorship in 2013 and hammered her on it. Even though Quinn eventually relented and the city passed a law in July of that year, the damage had been done, and she lost to de Blasio. “Connecticut showed that it was a winning issue,” Farrell said. “New York showed that you could lose if you were bad on the issue.”

And once the winning began, it bred more victories. New York City’s victory inspired advocates to push hard in New Jersey, where there are now nine cities with laws on the books. Portland, Oregon passed a law in 2013, then Eugene and the entire state followed. San Francisco’s law presaged San Diego’s, and then the whole state of California joined in. “There’s sort of a cluster effect and then a ripple effect across the country,” said Vicki Shabo, vice president of the National Partnership.

Success begets success. Advocates see that it’s something they can win on. Others join in, realizing it’s doable. And elected officials jump on the bandwagon when they see that it’s good politics.

Established laws also provide helpful evidence about what happens after they get passed. “Before any of these things pass, you have a campaign organized by the Chamber of Commerce or the NFIB [National Federation of Independent Business] or the National Restaurant Association,” all of which try to block the bills from passing, Appelbaum said. But businesses have come around after they spent some time living with the laws. “Once they have experience with it, their view of it changes.”

Surveys of employers in Washington D.C., Connecticut, and Jersey City found that they haven’t found the laws costly or difficult to comply with, and in San Francisco and Seattle the vast majority actually supported them once they were on the books. Job growth has also remained strong in San Francisco, Connecticut, and Seattle after the laws went into effect.

“The existing wins both shredded the predictions of doom from the opponents, the corporate lobbyists who said the sky would fall,” Bravo said, “and the growing body of evidence confirmed that paid sick days was in fact a boost for families and for the local area.”

Attention is now being paid in the country’s capitol. Democratic members of Congress have introduced a bill multiple times that would guarantee all workers at least seven paid sick days, and Obama has called on Congress to pass it. “The combination of an outside game, organizing and public education that community and women’s groups and health groups and labor groups are all doing, plus the political salience of it make this an idea whose time has finally arrived,” Cantor argued.

Advocates are ready to apply that recipe to a similar law that hasn’t gotten quite the same traction yet: paid family leave for the arrival of a new child or to care for a sick family member. Just three laws — in California, New Jersey, and Rhode Island — have been passed so far. It’s a slightly more complicated issue, given that it can really only be legislated at the state level and it requires setting up programs so that employees can pay into a fund with payroll contributions, which then pay out wages while they’re on leave. “It’s taking a bit longer to get momentum,” Cantor said. “But I think we’re going to start to see it.”

The WFP is working on a couple of states where it hopes to see progress soon, and Shabo noted that 20 states introduced bills this year. Next year could be family leave’s turning point. “You’re going to see change next year,” Bravo said. “We think there are three places that are positioned to win and other robust campaigns that are starting. We think over the next five years there will be enough states to create the same kind of momentum.”