When the Philadelphia City Council passed a paid sick days bill on March 14, it was the second of three wins in a two week period for the movement to let workers take a sick day without losing pay or their jobs. But the Council then fell one vote short of overriding a mayoral veto, providing a case study in how special interests aligned with the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) work to oppose these common-sense bills.
Over 180,000 workers in Philadelphia do not have access to paid sick days and would have benefited from the legislation. The bill has twice passed the City Council, and has twice been vetoed by Mayor Michael Nutter, a Democrat.
Major opponents of Philadelphia's paid sick days effort included the National Restaurant Association, the Chamber of Commerce, and the National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB), which presents itself as "the voice of small business" but lobbies primarily for big corporate interests. Each group is tied to ALEC and has consistently opposed similar legislation in other cities and states.
NFIB, U.S. Chamber, National Restaurant Association Fight Paid Sick Days Across Country
Nationally, an estimated 40 million workers, or forty percent of the workforce, cannot take sick days without losing wages or possibly their jobs, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Seventy-nine percent of food industry workers -- who are especially likely to spread illness if they go to work sick -- don't get paid sick days, according to a Food Chain Workers Alliance study.
But an effort is underway to change that. Four major U.S. cities -- Portland, Seattle, Washington DC, and San Francisco -- and one state, Connecticut, have paid sick days laws on the books. New York City will soon follow suit thanks to a recent deal cut between the City Council and Council Speaker Christine Quinn.
Other initiatives are moving in cities across the country, and in each case, the state and local branches of the National Restaurant Association, the NFIB, and the Chamber are actively opposing it. In Denver, a well-funded campaign by the National Restaurant Association helped kill a ballot initiative at the polls, with help from a "study" funded by the NFIB. In Orange County, Florida, the state Chamber of Commerce and other corporate interests have spearheaded a campaign to try keeping a paid sick days referendum off the ballot. In Massachusetts, the NFIB also published one of its studies purporting to show the impact of a proposed statewide paid sick days law on business.
In Milwaukee, voters passed a paid sick days referendum with over 70 percent of the vote in 2008. But thanks to a lobbying effort by the state affiliate of the National Restaurant Association and the local Chamber, when Scott Walker became Wisconsin's governor in 2011, he backed a bill to overturn this expression of local democratic will and preempt any local paid sick day ordinance.
That bill was promptly brought to the August 2011 meeting of the American Legislative Exchange Council in New Orleans and shared with other state's legislators as a model for state override. Legislators attending the meeting were also handed a target list and map of state and local paid sick leave policies prepared by the National Restaurant Association.
Included on that map as a target was Philadelphia, whose law was pending at the time.
Same Players Fought Philadelphia Bill, Plus Comcast
Philadelphia's 2011 paid sick days bill passed the City Council, was vetoed, and then re-introduced in 2013. The National Restaurant Association, an ALEC member, identified opposition to Philadelphia's paid sick days bill as a priority earlier this year. In March, the president of its state partner, the Pennsylvania Restaurant & Lodging Association, testified against the bill, calling it a "heavy-handed mandate."
The Philadelphia chapter of the Chamber of Commerce was also a vocal paid sick days opponent. In 2011 and 2012, the Greater Philadelphia Chamber passed out $11,250 to officials running for office. The biggest winner was City Council member Brian O'Neill, who took in $2000 in 2011 and an additional $500 in 2012, and voted against the paid sick days bill.
What makes Philadelphia unique is the participation of telecommunications giant Comcast, Philadelphia's highest grossing company and an ALEC member. Almost all of the $108,429 Comcast spent on lobbying in 2011 was in opposition to paid sick days. It also has been a major contributor to Mayor Nutter, contributing $7,500 to his campaign in 2011 and an additional $8,500 in 2012, and donating a total of $77,011 over the past two years to officials running for city office.
Like in other states, the NFIB was also active in Philadelphia's paid sick day effort, and a representative testified against the bill. Its state director penned letters to the editor attacking paid sick days and, like the Pennsylvania Restaurant & Lodging Association, described the law as a "heavy handed mandate."
This activity builds upon NFIB's prior work in 2011, when it released a report purporting to show the economic impact of paid sick days in Philadelphia -- but which was based on a set of flawed assumptions, as outlined by Robert Drago of the Institute for Women's Policy Research.
Studies Refute Doomsayers
The Pennsylvania NFIB also applauded Mayor Nutter's veto, stating in a press release that, "Companies located within city lines couldn't have competed with those just outside the city due to the cost of this unfunded mandate."
But the experience of San Francisco, which has required paid sick days for six years, indicates this assertion is unfounded. Employment in San Francisco remains stronger than in neighboring counties without such a law. The San Francisco industries most affected by the paid sick days law -- food services, retail, and hospitality -- actually saw stronger growth than in surrounding areas in the years after the law took effect. Over 59,000 workers who did not previously have paid sick days benefitted from the law. Despite the availability of either five or nine sick days (depending on the size of the business), the typical worker used only three paid sick days each year, and one-quarter of workers took none.
Third Time's a Charm?
Though Philadelphia was a narrow victory for the corporate lobby, momentum is not on their side. Both Portland and New York City have taken action on paid sick days in recent months, and efforts are marching forward in other cities and states with overwhelming public support. In Massachusetts, a nearly decade-long effort to guarantee paid sick days to 900,000 employees across the state is also gaining steam; despite opposition from the Massachusetts affiliates of the NFIB and the National Restaurant Association, a statewide paid sick days bill has support from Governor Deval Patrick and dozens of lawmakers.
These successes are not surprising: workers who do not have access to paid sick days are one-and-a-half times more likely to go to work sick, and when they do, they are less productive, costing businesses an estimated $160 billion each year in lost productivity. And voters of all political stripes agree that parents shouldn't have to lose pay or risk their job when they stay home with a sick child.
The persistence of paid sick day advocates has paid off. In New York City, corporate interests managed to get City Council Speaker and mayoral hopeful Christine Quinn to block the legislation for three years -- until earlier this month, when a long-term campaign by worker's advocates put her in the hot seat and made it politically untenable to continue blocking the bill.
In Philadelphia, the City Council has twice passed a paid sick days bill, and Mayor Nutter has twice vetoed it. But with dedicated advocates and clear benefits from paid sick days, perhaps the third time will be the charm.
And nationally, despite opposition from the same set of corporate interests, many expect paid sick days advocates to continue racking up victories across the country.