When Governor Jerry Brown signs Assembly Bill 1522, California will join a growing number of states where temporary or part-time employees no longer have to face the excruciating dilemma: go to work sick, or lose pay or your job.
The bill, which allows workers to accrue one hour of paid sick leave for every 30 hours worked, up to a total of three days a year, passed over the weekend with a 52–25 vote in the State Assembly. With more than 6 million workers -- or 44 percent of the California workforce -- covered, it is by far the biggest expansion of paid sick days in the country.
"A Key Component of Decent Work"
The lack of paid sick days can have repercussions that extend far beyond the emotional and financial strain caused by employers telling their workers to "shape up or ship out."
Workers who do not have access to paid sick days are one-and-a-half times more likely to go to work sick with a contagious illness, putting their co-workers and customers at risk, and costing an estimated $160 billion each year in lost productivity. Delaying treatment for illness can cause conditions to worsen, leading to more emergency room visits and increased costs for public health insurance programs. A 2012 study by the Center for Disease Control found that employees without paid sick leave are much less likely to receive preventive health care, such as mammography and other forms of cancer screening.
The World Health Organization argued in a 2010 report that paid sick days are "a key component of decent work." Not surprisingly, organizations to the right begged to differ. The California Restaurant Association opposed the legislation, and the California Chamber of Commerce trotted out the tired refrain that employees not working sick is a "job-killer."
And in an op-ed for The Sacramento Bee, two writers affiliated with the Freedom Foundation and the Employment Policies Institute argued that the bill would have "negative consequences for affected employers."
The Employment Policies Institute is a $3 million-a-year front group created by infamous PR executive Richard Berman and which operates out of the same building as Berman & Co, a PR firm that receives funding from the restaurant industry. The Freedom Foundation (which boycotted labor day) is a member of the State Policy Network and the brainchild of American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) "scholar" Bob Williams. Despite being funded by powerful corporate and ideological interests, these anti-worker organizations lost the battle in California.
Since Connecticut passed the first statewide law mandating paid sick days in 2011, labor rights campaigns have, in fact, gained both political traction and popular support. Eleven cities across the country have enacted paid sick day laws in recent years, including one in New York City last year guaranteeing paid days for a million workers. Four cities have enacted laws in 2014: Eugene, OR; Newark, NJ; Passaic, NJ; and San Diego, CA.
As the paid sick day movement has gained momentum, its opponents -- particularly those in the corporate restaurant industry -- have tried to thwart it. Since 2011, eleven states have thwarted local control through "preemption" laws prohibiting city, county, or local governments from enacting paid sick day laws with the assistance of ALEC legislators.
Today, an overwhelming majority of Americans across the political spectrum are in favor of paid sick days. Of those responding to a recent YouGov poll, 74 percent supported the measure. While Democrats were most positive, 69 percent of voters who identified as Republicans voiced their approval.
"A Significant Victory"
The original version of the California bill did not exempt any workers from the provisions, but an amendment was added at the last minute excluding the state's 400,000 "in-home" health workers. As a result of this watering-down, some unions withdrew their support. In a statement, Laphonza Butler, president of SEIU ULTCW -- the United Long Term Care Workers' Union -- expressed her shock that "California lawmakers would even consider attempting to send the caregiving workforce to the back of the bus again on sick days."
Still, the passing of the law represents an important step, according to Family Values @ Work, a network fighting for "family-friendly workplace policies such as paid sick days and family leave insurance." Director Ellen Bravo stresses that while the coalition will stay organized to end the exclusion of home care workers and expand the number of days, "it's a significant victory that would not have been possible without a long history of organizing by a broad coalition of local workers, unions, small business owners and partner organizations."
Lorena Gonzalez (D-San Diego), the state representative and former labor activist who introduced the bill, hailed its passage as an unprecedented victory for workers rights.