New Chicago Law Will Give Almost Half a Million Workers Guaranteed Paid Sick Leave

Jeff Schuhrke June 22, 2016

Rev. C.J. Hawking, executive director of Arise Chicago, speaks at a press conference after today's Chicago City Council vote. (Jeff Schuhrke)

In a 48 to 0 vote Wednes­day, the Chica­go City Coun­cil passed a land­mark ordi­nance guar­an­tee­ing work­ers the oppor­tu­ni­ty to take paid time off when they or their loved ones get sick. The law will ben­e­fit about 460,000 work­ers42 per­cent of the city’s pri­vate sec­tor work­force — who cur­rent­ly lack paid sick leave. Over three-quar­ters of those who will ben­e­fit are in low-wage jobs earn­ing under $20,000 per year.

Kah­phi­ra Palmer, a mem­ber of the work­ers’ rights group Arise Chica­go, said in a press con­fer­ence that work­ers will no longer have to choose between car­ing for their health and their finan­cial security.”

This is an emo­tion­al ordi­nance for me,” said 16th Ward Alder­man Toni Foulkes, who co-spon­sored the leg­is­la­tion. Before she was an alder­man, Foulkes was a gro­cery store work­er. I’ve been there. I know how hard it is for work­ing people.”

May­or Rahm Emanuel is expect­ed to sign the ordi­nance, which will take effect on July 12017.

Pas­sage of the law Wednes­day rep­re­sents the cul­mi­na­tion of a three-year cam­paign by Earned Sick Time Chica­go, a coali­tion of 50 unions and work­ers’ rights orga­ni­za­tions, includ­ing Arise Chica­go. The idea of a paid sick leave law was approved by 82 per­cent of Chica­go vot­ers in a non­bind­ing ref­er­en­dum in Feb­ru­ary 2015. The specifics of the law were pro­posed ear­li­er this year by May­or Emanuel’s Work­ing Fam­i­lies Task Force, which was com­prised of work­er advo­cates, employ­ers and city officials.

The new law lets all employ­ees earn up to five paid sick days per year and roll over up to 20 hours of unused sick time to the next year. Impor­tant­ly, the ordi­nance also for­bids employ­ers from dis­ci­plin­ing their work­ers for using sick leave and allows work­ers to use their earned time off to care for loved ones who fall ill or suf­fer injury.

We need this ordi­nance because even some employ­ees that cur­rent­ly have sick time … can’t use it [to care] for a fam­i­ly mem­ber,” Melis­sa Josephs of the advo­ca­cy orga­ni­za­tion Women Employed explained in tes­ti­mo­ny last week to the City Council’s Com­mit­tee on Work­force Devel­op­ment and Audit.

Some [cur­rent sick leave] poli­cies require advance notice,” she con­tin­ued. How many peo­ple have notice that they’re going to be sick? And a lot of them have pro­gres­sive dis­ci­pli­nary poli­cies where you get an occur­rence or a demer­it every time you use a sick day, even if you know in advance.”

Under the new law, such prac­tices will be prohibited.

Chica­go now joins over two dozen oth­er cities that have passed paid sick leave leg­is­la­tion in recent years, includ­ing San Fran­cis­co, New York, Seat­tle, and Min­neapo­lis. Four states — Con­necti­cut, Cal­i­for­nia, Mass­a­chu­setts, and Ore­gon — have also passed sim­i­lar laws.

Nation­wide efforts to push local and state gov­ern­ments to enact paid sick time laws are part of the grow­ing move­ment to improve the pay and con­di­tions of work­ers in low-wage jobs. Thanks to cam­paigns like the Fight for $15, law­mak­ers around the coun­try are increas­ing min­i­mum wage lev­els far above the fed­er­al min­i­mum of $7.25 per hour, with mul­ti­ple cities and states now phas­ing in a $15-an-hour wage floor over the next five years. Activists are also increas­ing­ly demand­ing fair sched­ul­ing ordi­nances that would require employ­ers to give work­ers advance notice their expect­ed hours of work.

What we’re see­ing is an upsurge in munic­i­pal-based labor pol­i­cy,” Adam Kad­er, direc­tor of Arise Chica­go Work­er Cen­ter, tells In These Times. As there’s few­er and few­er pro­tec­tions, as work­place con­di­tions are con­tin­u­ing to erode, as income inequal­i­ty is con­tin­u­ing to rise and as few­er work­ers are eli­gi­ble to or suc­cess­ful at join­ing unions, work­ers are influ­enc­ing their work­places through munic­i­pal gov­ern­ments, over which they have some degree of control.” 

As low-wage work­ers gain more pro­tec­tions and ben­e­fits through local gov­ern­ments, con­ser­v­a­tives and cor­po­rate lob­by­ists have tak­en notice and are push­ing back. Four­teen states now have laws pre­empt­ing cities from pass­ing both min­i­mum wage increas­es and earned sick time ordinances.

The major­i­ty of these pre­emp­tion laws have been passed by Repub­li­can-con­trolled leg­is­la­tures in just the past three years. North Carolina’s con­tro­ver­sial HB2 — the bath­room” bill requir­ing trans­gen­der peo­ple to use pub­lic restrooms that match the gen­der on their birth cer­tifi­cates—includes a pro­vi­sion restrict­ing local­i­ties from reg­u­lat­ing wages, hours and employ­ee benefits.

You hear from the Right this mantra of local con­trol, states’ rights, etc. But then as soon as local com­mu­ni­ties start pass­ing these laws, these Repub­li­can-con­trolled state hous­es start squash­ing that. That’s way big­ger than a work­ers’ issue — that’s a democ­ra­cy issue,” says Kad­er. I think we’re going to con­tin­ue to see paid sick days pass­ing across the coun­try. This is ris­ing up from below and it’s only going to grow.”

Jeff Schuhrke has been a Work­ing In These Times con­trib­u­tor since 2013. He has a Ph.D. in His­to­ry from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Illi­nois at Chica­go and a Master’s in Labor Stud­ies from UMass Amherst. Fol­low him on Twit­ter: @JeffSchuhrke

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