Orange County Paid Sick Time Quashed By Legislators Who Texted With Business Lobby

A person dressed as Mickey Mouse waves his hand from a float during a Halloween parade at the Tokyo Disneyland in Tokyo on Se
A person dressed as Mickey Mouse waves his hand from a float during a Halloween parade at the Tokyo Disneyland in Tokyo on September 7, 2012. Tokyo's Disney theme park runs Halloween events through till October 31 and visitors are allowed to wear Disney related costumes in the park. AFP PHOTO / Yoshikazu TSUNO (Photo credit should read YOSHIKAZU TSUNO/AFP/GettyImages)

Thanks largely to the pressure brought by the business lobby in Orange County, Fla., it appears the most magical place on earth won't include mandated sick leave for workers anytime soon.

Last month, Orange's Board of County Commissioners voted to put off a ballot vote on a hotly contested measure that would require employers to provide workers with one hour of sick leave for every 37 hours worked, capped at 56 per year. By delaying the vote until after the printing deadline for the Nov. 6 ballot, the board's move at least temporarily scuttled an initiative that 50,000 voters had petitioned to put to a public vote.

Three weeks after the board's action, text messages from county commissioners, posted online by the Orlando Sentinel, reveal how legislators were in close contact with opponents of the sick-leave measure, including lobbyists from Disney World, Universal Studios and Darden Restaurants, owner of the Red Lobster and Olive Garden chains, in the run-up to the board's vote.

Even the staff of Orange County Mayor Teresa Jacobs, the board's chair, apparently catered to the business community behind the scenes. "Going to try to get 3 theme parks ... on conf[erence] call in the morning to discuss," the mayor, who ultimately didn't vote to delay the measure, texted an advisor in late August, as petitioners amassed the needed signatures for the ballot vote. "Hope you will join us." Jacobs' office did not respond to an interview request.

The trove of texts came to light after a group pushing the sick-leave initiative, Citizens for a Greater Orange County, made a public-records request regarding the board vote, which the Sentinel and other news outlets piggybacked on. According to the Sentinel, Jacobs and her staff had deleted certain text messages regarding the vote, only to find out that they could be retrieved anyway. In turning over the previously deleted texts, her office then mistakenly gave up two years' worth of the mayor's messages.

The documented coziness between elected officials and business lobbyists has led to a mini-scandal in Orlando, with the Sentinel's editorial board, which doesn't support the sick-leave mandate, declaring that "confidence in local government and the democratic process ... have slipped into critical condition." (The Sentinel's full coverage can be found here.)

White-collar American workers tend to take sick days for granted. But for millions of lower-wage employees, particularly in the services sector, not working for a day due to illness means losing a full day's wages. In the absence of a federal law requiring employers to grant workers paid sick leave, labor and public-health activists have been putting forth sick-day measures on the state and local levels across the country in the last two years. Encouraging employees to clock in while sick, these proponents argue, is immoral and threatens public health.

Facing added workforce costs, businesses and trade groups have fought these measures hard, with affiliates of the Chamber of Commerce and the National Restaurant Association pouring money into efforts to defeat them. In Denver last year, the National Restaurant Association itself dumped at least $100,000 into an ultimately successful campaign to block what was known as Initiative 300, which would have given workers one hour of sick leave for every 30 they worked. Businesses like to argue that the added costs of sick leave will force them to lay off workers or raise prices on customers, further endangering a fragile economy.

In Orange County, business groups including the Greater Orlando Chamber of Commerce and the Central Florida Hotel and Lodging Association sued to stop the measure. A memo obtained by the Sentinel found that businesses were considering spending $2.2 million on an advertising campaign to defeat it.

"I am disturbed to see the lengths to which the local chamber is willing to go to force people to work when they're sick," former Rep. Alan Grayson (D-Fla.), a candidate for Congress in Florida who donated $25,000 to the sick-leave efforts, told HuffPost. "It's inhumane and it's counterproductive."

The case of Orange County, argues sick-leave advocate Ellen Bravo, is the clearest evidence yet of major corporations' influence on what are supposed to be parochial measures.

"It's just outrageous. It flies right in the face of every basic value of democracy," says Bravo, director of Family Values @ Work, a coalition of sick-time advocates. "Part of the way they try to spread misinformation is by hiding behind mom-and-pop businesses. If [the public knows] we're talking about Disney and Darden, its hard to convince the public they don't have enough money."

The most visible opponent of the Orange County measure has been the Central Florida Partnership, a parent group to the local chamber, whose president could not be reached for comment. Bryan Malenius, a spokesman for Disney, said the company believes the measure would ultimately damage the local economy.

"Like many other businesses in Central Florida, we opposed this initiative because it could hurt our community's efforts to compete for new jobs and further diversify the economy," Malenius said.

Full-time employees at Disney World, the largest single-site employer in the nation, already enjoy paid sick time when they need it. But the Orange County measure probably would have hurt Disney when it came to the company's considerable number of part-timers, or "casual" employees, as they're known in company lingo.

Eric Clinton, president of Unite Here Local 362, a union that represents 6,000 workers at the resort, said that Disney tends to offer better benefits than other entertainment companies in the area. But the influential company's opposition to the sick-leave measure, he said, probably went a long way in quashing it for the entire county.

"To me it's not a surprise, not a shock, in terms of their involvement or their effectiveness," Clinton said. "It was a ridiculous counter argument [to the proposal], that Orlando will be a vast desert of empty retail stores. Get out of town."

Orlando's WESH reported Tuesday that, after telling the station he never received advice from lobbyists on the issue, Orange County Commissioner Scott Boyd later admitted that he had exchanged text messages with lobbyists from Disney, the hotel association and Darden Restaurants. Boyd was among the commissioners who voted to delay the sick-leave measure.