Philadelphia Paid Sick Days: Anatomy of a Win

Last week, Philadelphia became the 20th location in the U.S. to enact a law guaranteeing that workers can earn paid sick days. It's the third time City Council has passed such a measure, but the first time the mayor will sign 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 Healthy Families and Workplaces Coalition, 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 told reporters 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.

Strong Champion

A second key to success was a strong legislative champion, in this case, Councilman Bill Greenlee. He faced down Mayor 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. Again and again, the coalition worked to expose the danger and head it off at the pass. 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. Mayor DeBlasio's successful win in New York 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.

The Philly coalition learned lessons from their counterparts in these other coalitions. They were able to get resources and support from Family Values @ Work and other partners.

Intrepid Leader

One final key to success: an intrepid coalition leader, Marianne Bellesorte. At a recent hearing on the bill, Greenlee said it should be called "The Marianne Bellesorte Earned Sick Time Law." With a steady hand, unbending heart and astounding grace, Marianne worked around pregnancy, a cancer diagnosis, chemo, surgery and radiation. Her illness only strengthened her belief that all the city's workers needed the time her job already guarantees.

"Without access to earned sick days, I probably would have put off the appointment that led to my diagnosis," Marianne testified. "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," she pointed out.

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.

Today we celebrate Philly's win at the very moment Rep. Rosa DeLauro and Sen. Patty Murray are re-introducing a federal paid sick days bill, the Healthy Families Act. Its way is being paved by places like Philadelphia, champions like Bill Greenlee, strong coalitions and leaders like Marianne Bellesorte - and by all of us getting involved..