Philly Workers Finally Get Paid Sick Days

Yesterday Philadelphia became the 20th location in the U.S. to enact a law guaranteeing that workers can earn paid sick days (in this case, one hour for every 40 worked). It’s the third time the Philadelphia City Council has passed such a measure, but the first time the mayor has signed it. This third time has nothing to do with charm and everything to do with smart organizing, grit and a transformed political landscape.

The organizing components aren’t hard to identify. It started with the broad and diverse Philadelphia Coalition for Healthy Families and Workplaces—dozens of groups concerned about ending poverty and caring for seniors, about gender and racial justice, about the well-being of kids and about economic growth.

The coalition included low-wage workers looking for a small but significant reform that would let them hang on to their paychecks and their jobs when they or a loved one was ill. As restaurant worker Jason McCarthey put it, “There’s a sick worker at nearly every restaurant in this city every day. We should be able to stay home and not spread germs when we’re sick.”

Also involved were business owners like Fatima Hassan, owner of Places and Spaces for Growth Early Learning Center, who testified that “lack of paid sick days would cost my child care center more from outbursts of pink eye or flu” than any expense for providing the time. These employers pointed out that they, too, are the business community—and refused to let corporate lobbyists opposing the measure speak for them.

A second key to success was a strong legislative champion—in this case, Councilman Bill Greenlee. He faced down Mayor Michael Nutter when he vetoed the bill twice and grabbed the opportunity when Nutter created an opening by setting up a task force on the issue. Greenlee shepherded a core of the council who were always in favor, and worked with the coalition to garner even more support. The coalition was persistent in roping in those who wavered.

They were also savvy about the danger of conservative state legislators who wanted the state to intervene and prevent local governments from making their own decisions on paid sick days. When opponents tried to stick their measure onto a popular bill concerned with domestic violence, they underestimated the coalition’s connection to domestic violence groups. Those advocates made it clear they’d kill their own bill before allowing it to pass with a provision that would prevent domestic violence victims from getting paid time to seek the care they need. The bill passed—without the amendment.

Also important to success in Philly was the growing momentum around the country. As more and more cities and several states took action, evidence grew that shredded the opponents’ predictions of doom. Philly’s Task Force noted that paid sick days provide “a measure of job security and income stability.”

Philadelphians without paid sick days saw that people just like them were winning in other places and took heart. New York Mayor Bill DeBlasio’s successful win against a candidate who’d long blocked a vote on paid sick days, as well as other elected officials who ran on their support for the issue, and numerous polls showing overwhelming public support across the political spectrum, may well have influenced Mayor Nutter. A legacy of brokering a deal on paid sick days looks a lot better than being the guy who obstructed it.

One final key to success: an intrepid coalition leader, Marianne Bellesorte, the senior director of public policy and media relations for PathWays PA, a services and advocacy organization for women, children and families. At a recent hearing on the bill, Councilman Greenlee said it should be called “The Marianne Bellesorte Earned Sick Time Law.” Marianne worked around pregnancy, a cancer diagnosis, chemo, surgery and radiation to get the bill passed. Her illness only strengthened her belief that all city workers needed the time off that her job already guarantees. As she testified,

Without access to earned sick days, I probably would have put off the appointment that led to my diagnosis. Without access to earned sick days, I don’t know how I could have afforded to take the time for chemotherapy—or surgery—or radiation. And the need for earned sick days didn’t end with me. Paid time off meant that I never had chemotherapy without a family member by my side. It meant that I wasn’t alone on the day when I heard the doctor say ‘it’s malignant’ while my baby kicked me. It meant that when chemotherapy demolished my immune system to the point where I wasn’t even allowed near fresh flowers, I didn’t have to worry about coworkers bringing their illness to the office. But because not everyone has earned sick days, I did have to worry about the cashier at the grocery store, the clerk at the drug store, and the servers at any restaurant I ate at.

We celebrated Philly’s win at almost the very moment Rep. Rosa DeLauro and Sen. Patty Murray were re-introducing a federal paid sick days bill, the Healthy Families Act (which would more generously require employers to provide one hour paid sick leave for every 30 hours worked, up to 7 days a year). Its way is being paved by places like Philadelphia, champions like Bill Greenlee, coalitions like the Healthy Families and Workplaces Coalition and leaders like Marianne Bellesorte.

Photo of Philadelphia City Hall by Flickr user Jason Murphy under license from Creative Commons 2.0


Ellen Bravo is strategic consultant to Family Values @ Work, a network of 27 state coalitions working for paid sick and safe days, family and medical leave insurance and other policies that value families at work.