Seattle fights for sick leave

May 23, 2011

SEATTLE--On May 11, the Seattle Coalition for a Healthy Workforce kicked off a community-wide effort to push for a proposed city ordinance to win paid sick leave rights for an estimated 190,000 workers. Considering that the population of Seattle is estimated at just over 600,000 people, passing this proposal would stand as a significant win in the struggle for labor rights in Seattle.

The Coalition is a grassroots linkage made up of workers, local small business owners, public health officials and policymakers, and includes more than 70 community, labor and faith organizations and local businesses. It represents a large network of progressive, independent organizing that has been missing in the recent sphere of Seattle politics.

The Coalition's primary aim is to pass a city ordinance where employees accrue one hour of paid sick time for every 30 hours worked.

The Coalition's tag line is "The responsible choice to ensure safer food, prevent the spread of disease, and promote healthier communities"--and the organizers mean to achieve just that.

From a health perspective, the Coalition aims to address the lack of paid sick leave as a structural barrier that makes it more difficult for certain segments of the working class and poor to make it to the doctor or even get the time needed to rest. In addition, their mission acknowledges the added stress involved with the burden placed on individuals and families who lose out on wages due to illness.

In other words, the Coalition wants to address the social determinants of health while, "connecting policy, legal rights and immigration rights to health," said Dr. Julian Perez during the kick-off meeting.

"Without paid sick leave there is no sick leave," he went on to emphasize, "people often wait until symptoms cannot be ignored and go to the emergency room---when it is too late to get the best care. I worry most about those with chronic illness who never get checked out because the symptoms don't manifest at first."

According to the Coalition website, 74.4 percent of school-age children and 64.2 percent of preschoolers in Seattle have parents who are both in the workforce. As such, the proposal will have a large impact on some of the most vulnerable members of the Seattle working class.

Reasons for sick leave may also include domestic violence and abuse. "Our issue for victims of domestic violence and abuse in regards to paid sick leave is that they may have to sacrifice essential pay for their families in order to establish the means to create safety and recover from traumatic experience, which is necessary for families and the women of Seattle," said Abigail Echo-Hawk, co-chair of the Seattle Women's Commission.

Other employees that may be impacted include workers in grocery, food service, retail, health care and child care.

"Seventy-eight percent of hospitality and food workers have no paid sick leave," said Kristin Rowe-Finkbeiner, executive director of MomsRising. "Without paid sick, they have to go to work and make others sick. No one should have to choose between earning the money they need to buy food and pay the rent and taking care of a sick child."

THE MOVEMENT for paid sick leave in the U.S. also has precedents it can take example from, which include paid sick leave ordinances both in the U.S. and abroad.

"Paid sick leave is a 'win-win-win,'" continued Rowe-Finkbeiner. "It raises productivity and reduces turnover. One hundred forty-five countries mandate paid sick leave. Three cities in the U.S. have a requirement of paid sick leave: Milwaukee, Washington, D.C. and San Francisco. They seem to be doing fine. There are 190,000 workers in Seattle with no paid sick leave. Our engagement can make paid sick leave happen here!"

The Coalition's goals also have much broader implications in working-class politics. In Wisconsin, anti-worker Governor Scott Walker recently continued his assault on the working class by signing legislation that effectively overturned the popular paid sick leave law in Milwaukee.

To add fuel to the struggle, as reported by, a spokesman for Washington State Attorney General Rob McKenna's office stated, "He [McKenna] tends to advocate for programs that create jobs. If it doesn't create jobs--and the sick leave proposal wouldn't--then he'd have questions about that."

A republican, McKenna is a potential candidate to run for the Washington State governor's office in 2012. In contrast, as reported by

The Drum Major Institute conducted a study examining San Francisco's paid sick leave law and found "no evidence that businesses in San Francisco have been negatively impacted by the enactment of paid sick leave." In fact, the U.S. economy as a whole loses $180 billion in productivity annually due to sick employees attending work and infecting other workers.

In addition, as reported by the National Association of Working Women, the city of Philadelphia and the state of Connecticut are currently moving towards passing paid sick leave mandates in their respective legislatures.

Attention to the paid sick leave proposal will be especially high in Seattle, as eyes will also be on Seattle's nine City Council members, who will jockey for support in this fall's re-election season in Seattle's overwhelmingly Democratic voter base. Notably, City Council member Nick Licata has sponsored the bill, whereas Council members Bruce Harrell and Mike O'Brien have publicly supported it.

As such, media attention and awareness building will be at a high during this period, which is all the more opportunity to build discussion about the recent struggles in Wisconsin, and elsewhere.

In the long term, whether or not Seattle becomes just the fourth city in the U.S. to mandate paid sick leave, the Coalition itself represents an opportunity for working-class people and union members to rally around a common agenda in Seattle.

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