Philadelphia Passes Paid Sick-Leave Law

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Credit: Gage Skidmore/Flickr

Finally some good news for a change!

At a packed session of the Philadelphia City Council Thursday morning, council members voted 14-2 to approve a bill mandating that most companies with 10 or more employees in this city of 1.5 million allow their workers to earn up to five days’ paid sick leave for themselves or to care for a sick or injured person at home.

The bill, sponsored by Councilman Bill Greenlee, who introduced and won passage for it two times before in 2011 and 2013, only to have it vetoed by Mayor Michael Nutter, this year had the votes to override any veto. Recognizing this, Nutter this year announced ahead of the vote that he would sign it.

The mayor explained his change in position saying that in prior years local businesses were hurting from the recession, but claimed that they could afford it now, though most Philadelphians and Philadelphia businesses would question his assertion that the city’s economy has recovered. More likely, Nutter, who is not eligible to seek another term as mayor and has to be thinking about some other elected post, saw the writing on the wall and didn’t want to cast yet another veto — this time in vain — against a popular bill, particularly among people who vote Democratic. (Polls show 70 percent of Philadelphians support paid sick leave.)

Passage of the law makes Philadelphia the 17th city in the US to mandate paid sick leave, and it is the second largest city in the country after New York City to do so. (Other cities that have passed such a law include San Francisco, Seattle and Washington, DC.)

Kathy Black, a long-time labor activist in Philadelphia and former head of the Coalition of Labor Union Women (CLUW), was one of the leaders in the fight for paid sick leave in Philadelphia. She attributes this year’s resounding — and veto-proof — victory to the dogged efforts of labor activists and other grassroots organizations, and to a “changing political climate” with 12 cities and two states recently passing such laws creating an “unstoppable momentum.” She also credits Philadelphia’s successful campaign to host the 2016 Democratic National Convention. “Democrats couldn’t really hold their convention in a city that was repeatedly defeating this bill,” she said with a sly smile.

After passage of the bill, supporters of the measure broke out in a rousing chant of “This is what democracy looks like!” as they filed out of the ornate chamber to celebrate their victory.

Labor activists cheer as Philly City Council passes paid sick-leave bill 14-2. Later, bill sponsor Councilman Bill Greenlee watches Mayor Michael Nutter sign a bill he twice vetoed earlier.

Labor activists cheer as Philly City Council passes paid sick-leave bill 14-2. Later, bill sponsor Councilman Bill Greenlee watches Mayor Michael Nutter sign a bill he twice vetoed earlier.

And it is a significant victory, though when viewed from an international perspective, it can seem shockingly small.

But that’s the US — a place that, as Winston Churchill once said, “…will always do the right thing…after they have exhausted all the alternatives.”

In most modern industrial or post-industrial nations, of course, paid sick leave has long been mandated, and not just for five days’ time. For example, in a 2009 article titled “Contagion Nation,” published by the Center for Policy Information and Research and authored by Jody Heymann, Hye Jin Rho, John Schmitt, and Alison Earle, it is reported that among the 22 most developed nations in the world, the US stands alone in not mandating paid sick leave for all workers.

Most of these less benighted countries have no minimum tenure-on-the-job requirement for getting up to five paid days off in the case of contracting a potentially contagious disease. In the US meanwhile, if a person comes down with a possible flu or other contagious disease, as Councilman Greenlee and others in Philadelphia have noted, they have to choose between taking unpaid days off, making it hard to pay for food and doctor if they are low-wage workers, or they have to just go to work, struggle along, and hope none of their colleagues catch their disease. (And that doesn’t even address the risk to customers in retail establishments or restaurants where workers have to make such difficult choices.)

Most of the surveyed countries also mandate longer-term sick leave ranging from 50 days to a year, in some countries financed by the employer, and in others, by the government as with disability payments or unemployment insurance.

Under the newly passed Philadelphia law, workers will have to work 40 hours in a year to earn one hour of paid sick leave. That means that a full-time worker, in order to earn the full five-day maximum paid sick leave in a year, would have to first work 40 weeks, or almost a year. It’s not clear whether extra weeks beyond the first 40 would count towards sick days in the following year, or whether workers could “earn back” lost pay for uncompensated sick days taken early in a year if they continued working for 40 weeks after healing and returning to the job. If not, workers in the City of Brotherly Love had better stay healthy for the first 10 months of each year!

One peculiar quirk of Philadelphia’s new paid sick-leave law is that it specifically exempts unionized workers working under a contract, applying only to workers in unorganized companies. This is because many of the powerful building trades unions in the city opposed having unions included. Labor activists explain that the building trades unions are “typically pretty conservative, and think that they don’t need a law like this because they already get sick pay in their contracts,” and that these unions think that if employers are required to offer it, “they’ll take something else away.” The problem is, with the building trades insisting on an exemption for unionized workplaces, many thousands of workers represented by other unions will not benefit from the law, though they may not have sick pay in their contracts.

“At least this law resets the bar, though,” says Black, since unionized employers who don’t offer sick leave could find themselves losing good workers to employers who do.

Councilman Greenlee was clearly jubilant about getting finally getting his bill passed. Just prior to the vote, confident he had the votes needed to pass the measure, and that the mayor, this time, would sign it, Greenlee said, “Earned paid sick leave is the right thing to do. Let’s finally do it!”

After the vote, several of his council colleagues praised his “tenacity” in pushing for the measure for years until finally getting it signed into law. As for Greenlee, he mused, “I know I have been a pain in the neck for this whole thing. But I think we did the right thing today, and we’re joining the many cities and states that are providing this reasonable service to people.”

Even Councilman David Oh, a lawyer and former assistant district attorney who cast one of the two nay votes on the bill, praised Greenlee for his successful campaign. Oh said he understood that the council, and activist supporters of the law, were “trying to legislate better working conditions and a better life” for Philadelphia’s working families, but taking a view that undermines the mayor’s claim that he was only vetoing the bill earlier because of the poor economy, added, “Doing this now in a down economy is not going to help people get the entry-level jobs that they need.”

That view isn’t actually self-evident. Supporters of the measure say that the experience in other cities that have passed such sick-leave laws demonstrates that there has been no discernible impact on employment or on the viability of companies subject to the laws.

This victory by Philadelphia activists, who organized and lobbied long and hard for this bill, demonstrates, as their chant claimed, real democracy in action. But it also casts in sharp relief the sorry state of “democracy” at the national level. There a Congress composed almost entirely of millionaires beholden to big moneyed interests, and a government led by presidents who have been bought by Wall Street and other corporate interests, are increasingly passing and signing laws and implementing policies — from cuts in Social Security benefits, weakening of pensions, weakening of bank regulation, and undermining of campaign finance laws to war-mongering in Ukraine — all of which are diametrically opposed to the interests of the public.

But for now, let’s cheer this local victory for working people, and working democracy.

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