In June, Connecticut became the first state to require businesses to provide paid sick leave for all service workers in the private sector. Democratic Governor Dan Malloy’s "sick pay" bill, which passed the state senate by a slim 18-17 margin, has drawn criticism for its potential job-killing effects. Republican legislator Al Adinolfi bemoaned another unfunded mandate that would force companies to think twice before making new hires, while State Senator Rob Kane pointed out that over 250 state businesses have opposed the measure, including the Connecticut Restaurant Association. Yet, Malloy’s new law will still go into effect on January 1, 2012, marking a decisive victory for the sick-pay movement -- a well-funded conglomerate of liberal special interest groups pushing for similar regulations all over the country.
"This kind of legislation costs jobs, and costs job opportunities" says Washington State Republican Party Chairman Kirby Wilbur. In Wilbur’s own backyard, leftist Seattle mayor Mike McGinn is supporting a sick-pay bill that is expected to pass into law this summer. "Government mandates create a general atmosphere of uncertainty in the business community. Businesses need predictability in order to expand, and if they’re concerned about the possibility of mandates then they’re not going to invest for the future."
President Obama has been supporting sick pay on a federal level since 2009, hoping to add Connecticut congresswoman Rosa DeLauro’s Healthy Families Act to his proud, LBJ-rivaling list of progressive reforms. But with Republicans controlling the House, national Democrats need to look elsewhere for help -- to places like Connecticut and Seattle, and to B-list party politicians like Dan Malloy and Mike McGinn.
McGinn, a former civic activist himself, supported the sick-pay bill under pressure from a group called Seattle Coalition for a Healthy Workforce. This group is supported, as are numerous other regional sick-pay activist groups, by an organization called FamilyValues@Work. Headed by Ms. Foundation Board Member Ellen Bravo, FamilyValues@Work is a "multi-state consortium" funding a "network of 15 state coalitions" around the country.
"This is a strategy I’ve been seeing for decades," says Wilbur. "The sick-pay issue did not originate in the minds of the people of Seattle. It originated with national special interest groups who are now going city-by-city handing money to local activists. Ellen Bravo and her people don’t understand the Seattle business climate. They don’t know Seattle business owners. But they’re targeting liberal areas where they know their reforms will pass, and trying to gain national momentum."
They started in San Francisco (a city that lost over 32,000 jobs this past year to place it second in national employment-decline rankings.) In 2006, Berkeley-educated activist Sara Flocks rode to the rescue of people she describes as "immigrant workers who pour us coffee and serve us food" but don’t earn wages when they run a fever. She worked with city councilors to draw up sick-pay legislation and sent her volunteers to stump on street corners and to dress as germs on the steps of City Hall. Her initiative passed.
The results were catastrophic. San Francisco quickly racked up $160 million a year in sick-pay costs (enough to create 1,800 new jobs, according to the Examiner) and abuses of the system ran rampant. Then-Mayor Gavin Newsom’s secretary (and mistress) Ruby Rippey-Tourk even got in on the action, collecting $10,000 from the city for her "substance abuse" ailments. Still, Flocks claimed victory, gained new donors, and rose to national prominence.
Her group, Young Workers United, features socialist imagery on its website and touts its next-door Bay Area origins. Most of its funding, however, comes from major liberal advocacy groups in New York and Los Angeles, including the Ellen Bravo-affiliated Ms. Foundation and prominent Baby Boomer "rich kid foundations" like the Nathan Cummings Foundation, the Vanguard Foundation, and the New World Foundation, of which Hillary Clinton was a Board Member in the 1980s.
Flocks has been particularly active in New York City, headlining talks at the progressive Drum Major Institute and winning critical acclaim in The Huffington Post. She has become a chattering-class celebrity, a photogenic success story to inspire the countless sick-pay outfits following her lead. She’s the first superstar of Ellen Bravo’s sick-pay activist network, but she likely won’t be the last. Bravo’s Connecticut captain Jon Green has been prominently, and glowingly, featured on Daily Kos, and Dana Schultz of Bravo’s Wisconsin branch has been featured on MSNBC.com.
When Philadelphia mayor Michael Nutter vetoed a sick-pay bill in June on the grounds that it would hurt local business (Philadelphia was one of 210 metro areas that lost jobs in May), Bravo declared that Nutter’s opposition to the reform will be "shortlived." Sadly, she may be right. Her Philadelphia surrogate group, Action United, is one of the toughest local organizations of its kind. It is also prone to headline-grabbing stunts, as when it taped thousands of postcards along the perimeter of City Hall.
"People like Ellen Bravo don’t pay attention to local conditions," Wilbur says. "They only care about advancing their ideological agenda on a national level. They don’t care whose businesses they ruin, or whose jobs they take away."
Since FamilyValues@Work was founded in 2008, Connecticut has lost 15,000 businesses, second-worst in the nation despite its small size. As of this summer, it seems those businesses won’t be relocating to Seattle.
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