Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter’s veto this week of a bill that would require employers to give workers paid sick time has put the issue on ice in his city, at least for the time being.
But the wider battle continues to gain momentum, with a growing number of cities and states debating whether to impose similar mandates—or block them altogether.
These disputes have escalated as the country struggles through a weakened economy and confronts a shift in political power that has labor unions fighting to keep pace with corporations.
Unions, as well as liberal activists, say paid sick leave—in which workers earn a certain number of days a year, depending on the size of their employer—is necessary for a healthy, vibrant workforce (and in the case of restaurants, to prevent the spread of illness). Groups representing employers, including some that voluntarily provide the benefit, argue that forcing it on businesses could cause worse financial damage.
The truth is hard to come by, since paid sick leave has recently become law in only five cities—San Francisco, Seattle, Portland, Washington D.C. and Long Beach, Calif.—and one state, Connecticut.
A business-oriented research company’s survey of Connecticut employers reported that many had cut jobs and benefits as a result of the paid sick leave law.
But the head of the U.S. Women’s Chamber of Commerce countered that the state’s employment figures had improved since the law was passed.
In San Francisco, where the nation’s first paid sick leave law was passed in 2007, the Institute for Women’s Policy Research—which advocates for such benefits—found that most businesses hadn’t noticed any discernible negative effects.
That sentiment was supported in recent interviews with San Francisco business owners. They said they agreed with the need for paid sick leave, adding that the impact of the 2007 law paled in comparison with the effects of measures that raised the minimum wage and required they provide health benefits.
Art Swanson, president of the San Francisco Small Business Network, said employers were skeptical at first about having to offer paid sick leave. They worried that the benefit would be abused, or would cripple their budgets.
“Over time, though, it’s become less and less and less of an issue, and how it has been dwarfed by health care reform,” Swanson said.
An estimated 40 percent of private-sector workers, or more than 40 million people, don’t get paid time off when they get sick. There are some protections under the federal Family and Medical Leave Act, but advocates say additional measures are needed because the 20-year-old statute doesn’t cover workers at small businesses, or those out with relatively routine illnesses like the flu.
A federal paid sick leave bill has been repeatedly introduced in Washington, but the odds of it passing remain distant.
At the same time, there are organized efforts in several states, including Florida, Washington and Michigan, to restrict municipalities’ ability to impose paid sick leave. Such measures are already in effect in Mississippi and Louisiana and Wisconsin, where an earlier Milwaukee mandate was nullified.
Eileen Appelbaum, a senior economist at the Center for Economic and Policy Research, blamed the gradual weakening of labor unions, which has hurt the ability of even non-organized workers to negotiate better benefits.
That has been made more acute by the widening wealth gap between workers and their bosses in recent years, Appelbaum said. “So employers are emboldened to do what they want to do."
Appelbaum argued that the costs of paid sick leave are ultimately born by workers anyway, since they typically sacrifice salary for better benefits.
In theory, the aversion to government-mandated benefits would divide Republicans and Democrats. But the reality has been more complicated, particularly as union power has waned and Democratic mayors, a traditional source of support, have swayed.
That list includes Nutter and Denver’s Michael Hancock, whose opposition to paid sick leave lead to the rejection of a public referendum.
In New York City, pro-business Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a Republican turned independent, and Democratic City Council speaker Christine Quinn, who hopes to succeed him, blocked paid sick leave for three years. Only recently, as Bloomberg nears the end of his final term and the political blowback threatened to damage Quinn’s chances, did she give in.
Nutter’s Thursday veto was the second time in as many years that he’d blocked a paid sick leave measure. Both times, he said it would be too damaging to local businesses.
His opponents on the city council have so far been unable to gather enough votes to override him.
But they vowed to keep fighting.