Beware the Wolf in Shepherd's Clothing

What’s worse than a wolf in sheep’s clothing? A wolf in shepherd’s clothing, pretending to protect the flock while setting out to prey upon them.

Last week on a busy news day, Rep. Mimi Walters (R-CA) dropped a bill she’d like us to think will promote workplace flexibility and paid family leave – both in high demand by working families too often forced to choose between caring for their loved ones and providing for them.

Corporate lobbyists who helped craft the Walters’ bill, misleadingly named “WorkFlex in the 21st Century,” used different language earlier to describe its goals. “Employers who voluntarily [meet a minimum threshold] of paid time off and options for flexible work arrangements will qualify for a federal safe harbor” from existing laws – as if profitable companies are the ones in need of protections, not the third of all workers who don’t earn a single paid sick day. “SHRM Legislation Would Preempt Local Sick-Leave Laws,” wrote Allen Smith from Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), acknowledging the real objective of this legislation: to undermine paid sick days protections and the democratic process.

Forget the window dressing - here’s what HR 4219 would actually do: create an escape clause for big corporations that allows them to ignore hard-won paid sick days laws. The bill would replace the right for employees to earn a legally-set number of paid sick days and use them as needed with a process that gives the boss final say on whether, when, for what reasons and at what cost workers could take the time. Companies that meet the vague and slippery threshold in this bill could evade democratically enacted state and local sick days laws that are already improving conditions in 8 states and 32 localities. The bill would also harm significant new legal protections on predictable scheduling.

Take a peek inside the coalitions that won the paid sick days laws and you’ll understand the breadth of the need – groups like Fight Asthma, Milwaukee; the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Domestic Violence; the Georgia Council on Developmental Disabilities; the AARP of Puget Sound; Vermont Main Street Alliance.

All those groups and more have a stake in a healthy workforce, kids who can stay home when they’re ill, seniors whose adult children can take them to a medical procedure. Without these policies, more people go to work sick or face the loss of wages, or worse, their jobs, for being a good parent or following doctor’s orders. Paid sick days laws ensure workers can't be disciplined for taking the time they need. Many of these statutes include time to deal with the aftermath of domestic or sexual violence and incorporate a realistic understanding of who makes up a family.

None of those guarantees exist in the Walters bill. In reality, HR 4219 would make work less flexible and paid time to care less available. And please stop calling this bill paid leave. The closest it comes is “allowing” you to save your vacation for years and then use that time for the heart attack brought on by non-stop work.

"Walmart calls itself offering flexible PTO," said Donna Kidney, a Walmart worker in a town in NJ that has not yet won paid sick days and a member of OUR Walmart. "But managers say you have to give advance notice to use the time. Kids' ear infections and stomach flus don't give advance notice, and we wind up with absence points that can add up and lead to termination."

The lobbyists backing Rep. Walters’ bill claim it will incentivize more employers to offer family-friendly policies. In no area of society is disregard for the law an incentive for good behavior. And history has taught us that allowing corporations to voluntary comply with the law often means no compliance at all. This bill would create a dangerous new precedent of letting companies pick and choose which laws to obey.

HR 4219 pretends to solve a problem that doesn't exist. Multi-city and multi-state employers already deal with different rules in different locations and have to keep paperwork for local authorities. The answer is not to flout local laws but to create a federal standard – and until then, a company-wide standard that incorporates the most inclusive feature of existing local laws.

The majority of small business owners support paid sick days. A report by the small business group Main Street Alliance found 65 percent of respondents in favor “because they want to do right by their employees and because it makes smart business sense.”

So far HR 4219 has only two co-sponsors. Congressional representatives who value families should reject this sham that would make life less flexible and less secure for working people. All who believe in a democracy shaped by the voices and votes of the people, should repudiate this federal override of state and local elections and legislatures. Lawmakers instead should support the federal paid sick days policy, the Healthy Families Act, and set a strong national baseline that cities and states can build on.

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