Advocates cried foul last week after a judge’s ruling effectively prevented a paid sick leave measure from reaching the November ballot in Orange County, Florida. The ruling, issued after an emergency hearing Tuesday night, ends the latest round of legal wrangling over whether the county’s commissioners could delay on putting the petition-backed proposal up for a vote. It comes amid increasing conservative pushback against the spread of such measures across the United States.
Vicki Shabo, director of work and family programs at the National Partnership for Women and Families (NPWF), called the result “perhaps the purest example I can think of, particularly in recent history, where special interest money and special interest access was used to usurp the purest form of citizen direct democracy that there is.” Orange County Mayor Teresa Jacobs, and the business group Central Florida Partnership, did not respond to requests for comment.
As I’ve reported previously, last year saw new momentum behind local laws requiring employers to provide workers with some minimum number of paid sick days to care for themselves or their families. At this time in 2010, paid sick leave laws had been passed only in San Francisco, Washington, D.C., and Milwaukee (the last of which was overridden by a statewide Wisconsin law last year). In 2011, measures passed at the state level in Connecticut and at the city level in Seattle. A referendum failed in Denver. Philadelphia’s Democratic mayor vetoed a broad paid sick leave bill but allowed one restricted to city contractors and subsidized companies to pass. In June of this year, Louisiana passed a law like Wisconsin’s, pre-emptively barring local leave mandates. Paid sick leave struggles are now afoot in at least five states.
Unlike other paid leave battlegrounds, Orange County has a Republican mayor and a two-thirds Republican majority on its county commission. But Shabo says that the county was chosen in part because “it has a big tourist and service industry,” making sick days for service workers a “clear public health imperative.” She says the county, which includes Orlando, has “a large and vibrant and diverse community.” Shabo adds that “in terms of getting attention to the issue, and to the need that workers have for sick days, Florida is a good place – would have been a good place – to do that.”
In Orange County, a coalition including labor groups like Jobs with Justice gathered more than 50,000 signatures on a petition backing a sick leave bill. Business groups led by the Central Florida Partnership sued, unsuccessfully, to have the petition process suspended on the grounds that its language was misleading. The bill’s opponents included Disney and the Darden restaurant chain.
The signatures were submitted to the county commissioners, who are authorized under the county’s charter to vote either to make the proposed bill a law or to send it to the ballot for a referendum. At their September 11 meeting, the commissioners and mayor voted unanimously not to enact the ballot measure into law. But rather than sending it to the ballot, they voted 4 – 3 to hire a ballot language expert to review the proposed law, and to organize a workshop and a public hearing on the issue.
The vote not to send the measure to the ballot passed despite the objections of the county’s attorney, Jeff Newton, who said, “It’s hard for me to reconcile logically how the board could now go back – go back in time – and essentially correct the language that 50,000 signatures were obtained based upon.”
The Orlando Sentinel reported that Orange County GOP Chair Lew Oliver, who is also an attorney, was “the architect” of the “maneuver,” which meant that paid sick leave language would not be ready in time for the September 18 deadline for printing ballots for the November 6 election. Oliver told the Sentinel that the genesis of the idea was an argument that sick leave supporters had made in court that it was up to commissioners to write the measure’s summary and title for the ballot. The Sentinel also reported that the commission would hire “well-known Republican” Wade Vose as its ballot expert.
The editorial board of the Orlando Sentinel, which opposed the ballot measure itself, wrote that the board had used “dirty tricks” in a “surprise gambit to derail the proposal,” and “broken faith with county voters.” In a statement issued in response, Central Florida Partnership President Jacob Stuart accused the measure’s supporters of having “induced” voters to sign the petition “under false pretenses” with “bait-and-switch false advertising.”
Mayor Jacobs, who had voted to send the measure to the ballot, has defended the commissioners’ choice not to do so. At a press event reported by the Orlando Sentinel, Mayor Jacobs warned that, as written, the measure would let her “travel to Las Vegas and take a friend to a dentist appointment, and take three days off of work, and my employer can’t even ask me for proof of what I was doing and why I wasn’t there.” Stephanie Porta, executive director of Organize Now, told the Sentinel that Jacobs’ claim was “wrong, plain and simple.”
Paid sick leave supporters filed suit, with mixed results. In a September 17 ruling, a three-judge panel led by circuit judge Frederick Lauten ruled that the bill’s supporters had offered a “facially sufficient claim for relief.” But, despite the September 18 deadline for printing ballots, the judges gave the commissioners up to 20 additional days to respond. Prior to the September 18 commissioners’ meeting, paid sick leave supporters donned black and placed flowers at the mayor’s desk, declaring “the death of democracy.” But at their September 18 meeting, the commissioners once again did not send the measure to the ballot. In a hearing the same night, Lauten denied an emergency request by supporters to force them to do so.
The week before, Lauten disclosed that he was married to a president of a division of the Central Florida Partnership, but said that his wife’s division “has no direct economic interest in the case.”
In his ruling, Lauten wrote, “Even if this court concludes that the [commission] failed to abide by its own charter, an adequate remedy…exists because the court is able to mandate that the matter be placed on the next special, general or primary election ballot.”
In comments to the Orlando Sentinel, Democratic state representative Scott Randolph, an attorney for the paid leave coalition, disagreed: “The citizens of Orange County expected the charter to be followed. That’s the irreparable harm.” The county’s next regularly scheduled general election is in 2014.
“The real story here,” says Shabo, “is the lengths to which the opponents will go to foreclose voters’ ability to even choose policies that are in the interests of workers and their families and communities.” She adds that she “could see this being an election issue in Orange County going forward.”
Orange County advocates have pledged to continue the push to get paid sick leave on a future ballot. Meanwhile, Shabo expresses optimism about campaigns in Portland, Miami, Massachusetts, Philadelphia, and New York City, where a bill has veto-proof majority support but has been blocked by City Council Speaker and mayoral frontrunner Christine Quinn.
As for Orange County, Shabo says, “One of the saddest things about this is that it shows that those with so much special interest money, and so much clout, really do stand in the way of modernizing our laws and modernizing the policies that working families need.”