In Congress’ largest response so far to the coronavirus pandemic, requiring employers to provide paid sick leave for workers became a bargaining chip.
Congressional Democrats sought to provide all full-time employees with seven paid sick days on a permanent basis and 14 additional paid sick days during the coronavirus pandemic in the March coronavirus relief package. But pushback from Republicans resulted in just 20 percent of workers being covered as part of the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, and just as a temporary rule through this year. Only workers at companies with below 500 or above 50 employees are included, leaving out tens of millions of workers at the largest corporations and at small businesses, whose owners can opt out.
The giant loophole in the agreement was also driven by opposition from business interests like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which warned Congress against what it described as a “federal, one-size-fits-all, permanent leave mandate.” Giant corporations like McDonald’s and small business associations joined in lobbying against House Democrats’ paid sick leave proposal.
Currently, the U.S. trails all but one of 34 OECD countries in paid sick leave policies, falling outside of 179 countries that provide paid family and medical leave. With most states leaving paid sick leave up to employers, about one-quarter of U.S. employees typically lack access to medical leave, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). As a public health measure, paid sick leave has been shown to reduce cases of influenza by 11 percent.
Under the risks posed by the highly contagious coronoavirus, retail workers at Amazon and Whole Foods have been taking actions for paid sick leave, with employees at chains like Wal-Mart and Chipotle recently protesting with the chant, “If we work sick, then you get sick.”
In Connecticut, a long-fought statehouse battle for paid sick leave resulted in the state becoming the first in the nation to pass a mandate in 2011. According to researchers who interviewed lawmakers and lobbyists, the state’s public financing program for governor and legislative campaigns was instrumental in electing officials who implemented paid sick leave policies. In several other states that have adopted paid sick leave policies, key players responsible for pushing the measures forward participated in the public financing system for their campaigns.
Candidates who participated in Connecticut’s campaign finance program have attested to the program’s effectiveness and have attributed better policy outcomes to it, according to Beth Rotman, Money in Politics & Ethics Program Director at Common Cause and previously the founding director of Connecticut’s Citizens’ Election Program.
“One bill alone which passed a decade ago, the Comprehensive Campaign Reform Act of 2005, made Connecticut the first state in the nation to enact paid sick leave—covering large swaths of everyday Americans, including many of the health care workers heroically serving in the current pandemic,” Rotman told Sludge.
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Public financing of campaigns has been shown to increase voter participation in elections, enhance the diversity of candidates, and curb the influence of big money and special interest spending in campaigns. By offering qualifying candidates a voluntary program of support from public funding sources, public financing of campaigns enables people to run for office without needing to draw on backing from wealthy supporters or business interests, expanding access for under-represented constituencies in government. Currently, 14 states and 13 municipalities have enacted public financing programs for elections, which vary in the offices covered and in their basic design, with the most common being matching funds to qualifying candidates who raise a broad base of small-dollar donations.
“After a decade of implementation of the Connecticut Citizens’ Election Program, ordinary citizens are more empowered to participate in democracy, and more represented by those elected to office,” Rotman told Sludge. “Races are much more competitive; the legislature is more representative of the state; and local small donors matter.”
Connecticut enacted its public financing program in 2005, taking the form of voluntary grants for full public financing for qualified candidates, and through its most recent election in 2016 has seen nearly the highest participation rate in the nation at 72% of candidates. (Only Minnesota’s refunds program has a higher opt-in rate, at 74% as of the 2016 election.)
“Stacked Deck,” a 2015 report by the think tank Demos, examines how paid sick leave was bottled up in the Connecticut legislature until the public campaign financing system changed the candidates and then the decision-makers in office. “In the first year it was available for gubernatorial elections, progressive candidate Daniel Malloy used his grant to win the 2010 race. That win changed the game for paid sick days in Connecticut,” the Demos report states. “Malloy staked out a very different position on the issue than his primary and general election opponents, Democratic small businessmen Ned Lamont and Republican Tom Foley respectively.”
After public financing was put into effect for the 2008 election, an opponent of paid sick leave at the head of one legislative chamber, then-Speaker of the Connecticut House James Amann, was replaced by publicly-funded progressive Chris Donovan. The state’s Senate President, Donald Williams, Jr., was publicly-funded as well, and they came together to pass the first-in-the-nation sick leave bill in under one year. The push overcame immediate and vocal opposition from the state’s chamber of commerce, the Connecticut Business & Industry Association (CBIA), which put out a press release calling it “bad for business,” and from then-Governor, Republican Jodi Rell.
A year and a half after implementation, the paid sick leave program was supported by over three-quarters of 251 Connecticut employers surveyed in a report from the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR), which found that employers reported largely positive effects on their businesses, especially the reduction of spread of illness in workplaces.
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Last May, Maine became the 11th state to mandate paid sick leave, in a compromise package led by legislators who relied on the state’s longstanding public financing system. Maine’s legislature was called the most blue-collar in the country in the 2014 book “White-Collar Government” by public policy professor Nicholas Carnes, with one out of seven state representatives holding blue-collar jobs. This level of representativeness came out of Maine’s program offering grants for qualifying statewide and legislative office seekers, which had been used by 85 percent of the legislature. The public financing system, which dates back to 1996, was strengthened by voters in a 2015 citizen initiative and remains used by over half of candidates.
A 2018 report from the Maine Center for Economic Policy found that the workers who are paid the lowest in Maine are much more likely to receive no paid sick time benefits from their employers, with two-thirds of workers who make less than $12 an hour having no paid sick days. Though business interests such as the Maine Hospital Association opposed paid sick leave in the state, a ballot referendum announced by the progressive Maine People’s Alliance on Election Day 2018, as Democrats took control of state government, spurred the legislature to action.
The lead sponsor of Maine’s paid sick leave bill, Sen. Rebecca Millett, has had nearly 92% of her campaign funding over four Senate elections come from the state’s public financing program, according to the National Institute on Money in Politics. Maine’s Clean Elections program requires legislative candidates to gather a minimum of 175 contributions of $5 or more from registered voters in the district. The bipartisan deal Millett brokered last year, the Bangor Daily News reported, became the first major legislative accomplishment of Gov. Mills, who was elected in 2018. The bill was signed into law last year by Mills, affecting companies with 10 or more employees. Maine’s more-generous policy of paid time off was the first in the nation to allow employees to use earned paid leave for any purpose, including non-medical personal reasons.
“In Maine, our legislature is truly a citizen legislature thanks to our clean elections program,” Sen. Rebecca Millett told Sludge. “Our clean elections program makes it possible for people of all different backgrounds and professions to run for office. As a result, both the makeup of the legislature and the decisions we make better reflect the Mainers we represent. I’m proud to serve alongside teachers, electricians, loggers, nurses, doctors and small business owners.”
At the city level, seven of the 13 large municipalities across the nation that have passed or enacted paid sick leave policies use public funding of elections. They include Los Angeles, New York City, San Francisco, and Seattle—all of which issued amendments or added emergency legislation to their existing paid sick leave policies in March or April, in response to the Covid pandemic.
Washington D.C. passed an emergency relief bill as well last month, expanding paid sick leave for workers due to Covid; in October 2019, the District became the latest to pass a fair elections law providing public matching funds, which will be effective for the 2020 elections. Long Beach, California, with a longstanding matching funds program for citywide races, moved last month to require businesses with 500 or more employees nationally to offer 80 hours of paid sick leave for workers who are impacted by COVID-19.
Montgomery County, the most populous county in Maryland, enacted its public financing program for elections starting in 2015, and then passed paid sick leave the following year. A September 2019 report from the Maryland Public Interest Research Group on the program’s impact in the county’s 2018 elections found that matching funds largely achieved their goals, increasing total contributions while reducing the influence of large donors and enabling competitive small-donor-backed campaigns.
The states of Colorado and New York have each moved to provide paid sick leave as part of their COVID-19 response, with New York’s package now the most generous of any state so far, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. In 2018, Denver voters approved public financing starting in the November 2020 elections by a 61-39 margin; New York City’s public financing system is described as the nation’s best, and was strengthened in a 2018 ballot initiative approved by 80% of voters.
Laura Williamson, senior policy analyst at Demos, told Sludge that that small donor public financing helps underrepresented populations run and win races. For example, she pointed to the findings of a 2013 Demos study after public financing was in place for two election cycles in Connecticut, that Latino representation reached its greatest level in 2012 and women made up one-third of the state legislature.
“Elected leadership is disproportionately white, male, and wealthy, so the single most important thing is that public financing makes it possible for other people to run, mount competitive campaigns, and to win—not only progressives, but candidates who look like and reflect the experience of their constituencies,” said Williamson. “More people of color, working class people, and women in particular are winning elected office, more people who understand why paid sick leave is a ‘need to have,’ not a ‘nice to have.’
“We know, and research draws this line very clearly, that corporate interests especially are hostile to family-friendly policies. Chambers of commerce and large businesses are well represented; they fund campaigns and ask for whatever they want, and politicians help them get it. So when we have small donors funding elections and not megadonors and wealthy interests, we see people who are familiar with working class concerns and more people talking to and hearing from communities that would benefit from paid sick leave and other policies.”
Update, May 11, 4pm ET: this article was updated to add a quote from Maine Sen. Rebecca Millett, lead sponsor of Maine’s 2019 paid sick leave legislation, on the state’s public financing program.
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