DC Passes Historic Paid Sick Leave Legislation

3-14-08, 9:08 am

Original source: Jobs with Justice

It could have been an episode of ER or House: a popular patient battles against all the odds, survives a near-death experience, triumphs in the end but still faces challenges in the next episode. In this case, the patient is the District of Columbia’s Accrued Sick and Safe Leave Act, which would provide DC workers with a limited amount of paid sick time, and protect workers who need time off to address a domestic violence situation. Over a year in the making, the paid sick leave Bill had already been operated on extensively, as supporters made concessions to win political and business support.

On Tuesday, March 4th in front of a packed and tense audience of over 100 people, the DC Council voted unanimously to pass the Accrued Sick and Safe Days Act of 2007. The vote makes DC only the second city in the country to have a paid sick days law, and the first to provide paid time off to victims of domestic violence, stalking, and sexual assault.

Under the new law, full-time workers at businesses with over 100 employees will earn 7 days a year to take care of their own health, the health of family members, or address a domestic violence situation. Workers at businesses with 25-99 employees will earn 5 days, and workers at businesses of 24 or fewer will earn 3 days. Part-time workers will earn paid time on a pro-rated basis.

Those present at the vote represented the diversity of the organizations supporting the bill: janitors and security officers with SEIU Local 32BJ alongside members of the Coalition Against Domestic Violence, Co-op America Worker Members next to Working America staff, Georgetown and American University students and Jews United for Justice members, hotel workers from UNITE HERE Local 25 with homeless advocates from So Others Might Eat, Bread for the City, and Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless. The coalition to win paid sick and safe days was led by the DC Employment Justice Center, with strong support from DC JwJ.

While winning this groundbreaking bill over huge opposition was a big victory, there were also some losses. The Council was able to push through amendments that weakened the bill, including exempting tipped restaurant workers and changing the law so that workers have to be at a job for a full year or work 1,000 hours before earning paid sick time. But the coalition was able to fight back other amendments that would have exempted small businesses altogether and decreased the total numbers of days workers could earn.

Just as medical professionals learn from each case, supporters preparing to fend off further attempts to water down the bill before the March vote are drawing on important lessons learned:

Build your base. With plenty of money and political capital, local employers through the Chamber of Commerce came uncomfortably close to wiping out years of work backed by solid research, well-articulated moral arguments and plain old common sense (do you really want your waiter or childcare worker coming to work sick?). 'Our strength has always been our base and this rings even more true when were engaged in a legislative battle', says Mackenzie Baris of DC Jobs with Justice. Political leaders need to know that they will have backing from city voters, or be held accountable if they ignore popular will. The Paid Sick and Safe Days Coalition built a strong and effective team of unions, community groups, service providers and think tanks including the Metro Washington AFL-CIO, UNITE-HERE, SEIU, DC Jobs with Justice, the DC Employment Justice Center, DC ACORN, DC Fiscal Policy Institute, the Center for Nonprofit Advancement, the DC Coalition Against Domestic Violence, So Others Might Eat (SOME), and Wider Opportunities for Women.

Organize and mobilize the base. Supporters surveyed workers in retail stores, coffee and sandwich shops, and organized workers to appear at the initial hearing and tell their personal stories. One worker who works for Whole Foods talked about how she is penalized for taking sick days, even though she is theoretically eligible for them. In addition to helping workers organize and present their testimony, supporters hosted a movie screening of The Motherhood Manifesto to educate parents and collected signatures from residents through a petition and postcards. Paid sick leave advocates also reached out to the business community and developed a network of small business supporters of the bill. When it seemed like Committee Chair Carol Schwartz might not submit the bill for a vote, advocates organized a rally in front of the City Council. While walking the halls of City Council and talking to Councilmember’s staff is part and parcel of pushing for legislation, advocates never lost sight of the need to keep that fight visible to the public and to engage the very residents who will be most affected.

Use individual strengths to build collective power. As a broad-based team, each organization played a specific and important role in the Paid Sick and Safe Days Coalition. The unions brought their political capital and organizing experience; community groups were instrumental in doing outreach to parents, workers and business in the community; service providers were able to organize particularly vulnerable sectors which might have otherwise been overlooked; and when the Chamber of Commerce came out with alarmist warnings that this bill would destroy DCs economy, think tanks like the DC Fiscal Policy Institute provided sober analysis to rebuff such claims. No one organization could have single-handedly fought this battle on so many fronts, and the coalitions willingness to trust and acknowledge each others strengths allowed them to build collective power.

JwJ is be proud of the work and victories of this campaign. DC JwJ will keep up the fight for better pay and benefits for working people, and to hold our elected official accountable to the people rather than to business interests.

From Jobs with Justice