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Working In These Times

Tuesday, Mar 3, 2015, 2:03 pm

With 82% of Chicago Votes for Paid Sick Leave, Labor Groups Call for Action

BY Yana Kunichoff

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Workers and advocates gather to demand a paid sick leave policy in Chicago. (Shelly Ruzicka)  

On February 25, nearly 82 percent of voters in Chicago’s mayoral election cast their vote in favor of a non-binding referendum asking whether workers in Chicago should have the right to paid sick days. Now a coalition of labor groups are using the coming run-off election between Mayor Rahm Emanuel and challenger Jesús “Chuy” García to try to drag long-stalled legislation on sick days out of the city council committee and make it into law.

“We know that for the mayoral candidates, the vote from workers and particularly African-American workers is very important,” said Adam Kader, director of the Arise Chicago workers center. “We know that the vast majority of Chicago [voters] support paid sick days.”

At question is an ordinance that has been sitting in Chicago City Council Committee on Workforce Development and Audit for the past year. The legislation would allow workers in the private sector to earn one hour of sick time for every 30 hours they work, eventually culminating in five to nine days a year. Employers that do not participate would be fined a minimum of $500.

According to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, 49 percent of private-sector workers in the Chicago area do not have access to paid sick days. Nearly half of the Chicagoans employed in the private sector work at jobs earning less than $20,000—77 percent of them don’t have access to paid sick days. For workers, this can mean a host of unpalatable options ranging from working in food service while sick or, in the case of Martina Sanchez’s husband, returning to work too soon after a serious surgery.

“My husband got sick and we had to take him to the emergency room. The bill came to $185,000,” said Sanchez, a member of Arise Chicago, at a press conference on Monday. With such a large bill to pay, her husband had to return to his job after one week, she said.

With no national policy requiring sick days, localities have taken passage of such laws upon themselves. Seventeen cities—most recently Philadelphia—and three states have passed legislation that mandates sick leave. The hope, says Kader, is that Chicago will be next.

The referendum on sick days received a particularly high vote in the African-American community—an average of 90.9 percent in predominantly African-American wards, according to the advocates’ analysis of voter data.

Those wards also happen to be particularly important in the coming run-off. It’s a well-trod truism that any mayor that wants to win election in Chicago needs support from a wide part of the city, and in the last election the African-American community didn’t show decisive support for either Emanuel or Garcia. Emanuel won more votes in the African-American community than the other candidates, but saw a 16 percent point drop from the 2011 election, according to an analysis by the Chicago Reporter.

As the election neared, Emanuel voiced his support for progressive legislative measures including a raise in the minimum wage and a single-room occupancy hotel ordinance. It paid off: The Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 1 remained neutral in the first round of the election in part because of Emanuel’s support of the minimum wage ordinance, the Chicago Sun-Times reported, though the union recently announced it may choose to back a challenger for the second round.

Arise Chicago and many of its coalition partners have nonprofit status and thus won’t be endorsing candidates themselves. But the groups argue that their connection to workers who have been mobilized by Chicago’s recent movement for fast food workers and the Chicago Teachers Union strike in 2012 could be decisive.

“Eighty-two percent of the voters have spoken. They've shown unequivocal support for paid sick days,” says Kader. "Now it's time for candidates to take a public stand on the issue and let us know if they're with the voters or not."

Yana Kunichoff is a Chicago-based investigative journalist and documentary producer. Her work has appeared in the Guardian, Pacific Standard and the Chicago Reader, among others. She can be reached at yanakunichoff at gmail.com.

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