Chicago voters might have an opportunity during the February municipal election to weigh in on a non-binding ballot referendum about paid sick leave for workers in the city.
The council's Rules Committee passed a resolution at its Tuesday meeting calling for an advisory ballot question on whether employers in Chicago should be required to provide their employees with paid leave in the event of an "illness or public health emergency." The full council could consider the proposal at its meeting this Wednesday.
Chicago Ald. Joe Moore (49th), one of the sponsors of the referendum resolution, discussed the measure at a forum on paid sick leave and other pro-worker initiatives held this morning at Roosevelt University.
"It's a great organizing tool for those who support paid sick leave," Moore said of the pending citywide referendum, also sponsored by Alds. Joe Moreno (1st) and Will Burns (4th). Moore said he is confident the measure will pass through the full council tomorrow.
The proposed ballot referendum comes months after Moreno and Ald. Toni Foulkes (15th) introduced an ordinance in March that would make earned paid sick days a requirement for private employers in Chicago.
Twenty-four other aldermen have co-sponsored the measure, which would ensure that all workers in Chicago currently without paid sick leave are able to take time off to care for their own illnesses, a sick family member or attend medical appointments. The ordinance is pending in the council's Committee on Workforce Development and Audit.
The Rev. C.J. Hawking with the labor-rights group Arise Chicago called earned sick time "a moral imperative for our society."
"Even though Mayor Emanuel would support some version of paid sick days, and he wants to put it on the February ballot, we need to send a message that we will not rest until we have a comprehensive ordinance on the books," she said. "An ordinance that takes in the needs of working families and the realities of their everyday lives."
The Earned Sick Time Chicago Coalition — which is pushing for a paid sick time policy for all workers in Chicago — and Roosevelt University’s Social Justice Studies program hosted Tuesday's forum, which was attended by elected officials, advocates, policy experts and service industry workers.
Other elected officials at the "Inequality Beyond Wages" discussion included U.S. Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-IL,9); Chicago Alds. Burns and Foulkes; State Reps. Christian Mitchell (D-Chicago) and Elizabeth "Lisa" Hernandez (D-Cicero); State Rep.-elect Will Guzzardi (D-Chicago); and State Sen. Daniel Biss (D-Evanston).
Panelists highlighted the plight of low-wage workers as well as policies at various levels of government that would provide them with much-needed relief. The forum focused on paid sick time, paid leave and schedule flexibility initiatives.
Charmaine Givens-Thomas, a nine-year Evergreen Park Walmart employee, discussed how her low wages and unpredictable work schedule make it difficult for her to afford basic necessities.
"At the darkest moments of my life, I am left wondering: can I pay my bills? How can I avoid getting my gas and electricity cut off? Do I need to eat, or do I need to buy a bus fare to be able to make it to work," she said as she wiped away tears. "These are the realities of working at Walmart. Not only am I stressed out, but I am left ashamed that I work for the biggest retailer in the country, but cannot get 40 hours a week, cannot, most of the time, make a family plan because of my schedule. Moreover, if you are sick at Walmart, and you are not a regular full-time associate, you will not be qualified for illness pay."
The proposed Chicago earned sick time ordinance would apply to businesses and employers of all sizes in the city, including those who hire domestic workers, such as house cleaners or nannies. Workers would be able to accrue one hour of sick time for every 30 hours worked. Under the proposal, both full-time and part-time workers could earn between 40 hours to 72 hours of paid sick leave annually, depending on the size of their employer.
"It's called earned sick days, because you earn it," stressed Melissa Josephs, director of equal opportunity policy at Women Employed.
It would cost employers in Chicago about $109 million annually to provide earned paid sick days, which is about equal to a $0.22 per hour wage increase or $8.13 a week for eligible workers, according to a report by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR).
Advocates maintain that the proposed policy would have a positive net impact on employers due to the benefits that come with it, including reduced turnover and flu contagion as well as increased productivity. Those employer perks, according to the IWPR, are estimated to provide $6 million in projected net savings a year for Chicago employers.
Forty-two percent of private sector workers in Chicago, or more than 460,000 individuals, have no access to paid sick leave, according to the Earned Sick Time Chicago Coalition.
A uniform policy, panelists said, is also necessary for employees who already have paid sick days but cannot use them to care for an ill family member. It would also safeguard workers from employer retaliation for taking time off as a result of a personal or family illness, they added.
Earned sick time is particularly important for restaurant employees who handle food and are forced to go to work when they're sick, advocates said. Nearly 80 percent of Chicago workers employed in the food industry have no access to paid sick days, the IWPR's analysis showed. Jobs in the city's personal care and service sectors are also among those that offer the fewest paid sick days.
Burns, who talked about the urgent need to address income inequality in America, stressed that earned paid sick leave in Chicago is not a matter of if, but when.
"You know things are bad when the International Monetary Fund says that the United States has a problem with income inequality," the alderman told the crowd. "This is no longer an issue of the left wing. It's an issue for all of us. If you're a working woman, a working person and you can't get two [paid] sick days off a year ... what does that say about us as a country? What does that say about us and our values as city and as a state? ... I believe whether it is this year or next year, we're going to have paid earned sick time in the city of Chicago."
Thirteen cities, such as Seattle and New York, already require paid sick days. And the measures have had positive economic impacts, Josephs said.
"Job growth is higher in cities that have sick days than surrounding areas that don't," she noted.
Connecticut and California have statewide paid sick leave policies.
At the national level, there's a long-stalled bill called the Healthy Families Act, which would establish a national paid sick leave standard. The bill, reintroduced last year by U.S. Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT,3) and Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), would allow workers to earn up to seven paid sick days each year.
The forum also called attention to the Schedules That Work Act, which is pending federal legislation and would give hourly workers more predictable, stable schedules.
Employees in low-wage industries often have little control over their schedules, advocates said. Unstable schedules are especially harmful to working single mothers because it makes child care arrangements particularly stressful.
"Fair, flexible and reliable scheduling is a simple way to ensure that all workers are treated with the dignity and respect that they deserve," said LaQuita Honeysucker, legislative representative with the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union.
The federal legislation, backed by Democrats, would grant employees the right to request a predictable work schedule. The measure, introduced in July by Rep. George Miller (D-CA,11) and Harkin in their respective chambers, looks to prevent employers from retaliating against workers who request a schedule change. Under the measure, employers would have to provide retail, food service, and cleaning employees with at least four hours worth of pay if they show up for a scheduled shift of four hours or more but are sent home early. It would also require two weeks' advance notice if a retail, food service or cleaning employee's schedule is to change, among other provisions.
Honeysucker said the proposed policy would help both employees and employers because it provides "certainty." She also noted that unstable work schedules often lead to higher rates of worker turnover and absenteeism, which hurt employers' bottom line.
Schakowsky is an original co-sponsor of the Schedules That Work Act. The legislation currently has 42 co-sponsors in the House.
"Our job is to get more co-sponsors," Schakowsky said. "In the meantime, it's an organizing tool that we can work for."
"What's happening on the streets right now is going to change what's happening in Washington, in Chicago and in the state of Illinois," the congresswoman added. "It's the most important activity that we're doing right now. In Washington, we're doing basically nothing. In the streets, we're doing everything that's important that's going to make change."
Check back with Progress Illinois for coverage of Wednesday's Chicago City Council meeting.