The last time Manuel Cardenas fell ill, the 24-year-old single father had no choice but to report for work.
His employer, a security contractor, doesn’t offer sick pay to part-timers like Cardenas, he said, and he can’t afford to lose a day’s wages.
“I probably shouldn’t have, but I had to,” said Cardenas, a security guard in San Jose.
He is among California workers for whom labor groups and others are fighting to secure paid sick leave. Currently, 4.5 million workers in California, about 40% of the state’s workforce, don’t have sick-pay benefits.
Following recent legislative victories in New York and Portland, Ore. — and one of the worst flu seasons in years — advocates for paid sick leave are hoping to ride that momentum to win victories locally.
Previous failures to get the Legislature to mandate paid sick leave have taught labor groups a few lessons. Among them: Focusing on passing legislation on a city-by-city basis appears to be more fruitful.
“What’s been successful around the country is a more local initiative,” said Netsy Firestein, executive director of the Labor Project for Working Families. That strategy “let’s you get closer to people. You know the businesses and voters.”
Activists are expected to mount campaigns in Los Angeles, San Jose and Oakland, but the timing is unclear, and labor groups say they are still deciding whether to pursue ballot initiatives or push ordinances through city councils.
“It’s a matter of when, not whether,” said Ben Field, executive officer of the South Bay Labor Council. “This is really a movement that’s sweeping the nation.”
Cardenas said he hopes San Jose, where voters last fall voted to increase the minimum wage, will follow. He said he juggles work, attending school full time at San Jose State and caring for his 4-year-old daughter.
If he had sick pay, “I wouldn’t be stressed about going to work sick,” he said.
As advocates plan their next steps, they plan to emphasize public health risks associated with workers, particularly restaurant employees, who go to work while sick for fear of losing their jobs.
A recent study by the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that sick food handlers caused 53% of the food-borne norovirus outbreaks. Norovirus is an illness characterized by symptoms such as diarrhea and stomach cramping.
Homing in on the public health issue may resonate with consumers, advocates said. “Gross totally sells,” said Roxana Tynan, executive director of Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy.
Tynan said her group would mount a broad campaign following May’s municipal elections to push for a minimum-wage increase and paid sick leave.
“We’ve tried to combine issues rather than do them separately,” Tynan said. “You can’t just separate out issues like paid sick days. If you could lose your job for being sick … having higher wages is not going to help.”
Labor groups, however, will face steep opposition from business groups that say small businesses can’t afford additional costs during a still shaky economic recovery.
“Proponents of paid sick leave have the best intentions but don’t recognize that this policy is the law of unintended consequences,” said John Kabateck, executive director for the California office of the National Federation of Independent Business. “The very individuals that paid-sick-leave proponents strive to help will be the first to suffer from the fallout.”
Kabateck said many small-business owners don’t offer paid sick leave because they can’t pay for it.
“There’s an assumption that small-business owners have a big wad of cash sitting in the till, and that’s just not the case,” he said.
Those pushing for sick-pay days say such ordinances are necessary to ensure that working-class families get by during uncertain economic times.
One of the last times California lawmakers considered the issue was in 2011, when former Assemblywoman Fiona Ma (D-San Francisco) sponsored AB 400, her third attempt at passing a law for paid sick leave. The measure ultimately died.
The unemployment rate in California at the time was 12% — and critics, which included the California Chamber of Commerce, said businesses could ill afford a law that would mandate paid sick leave. Such legislation, they warned, would close businesses and cost the state more jobs.
But that is not the case, advocates say, pointing to San Francisco, which, in 2006, was the first city to mandate that employers provide sick leave. The ordinance went into effect a year later.
A 2010 survey of 727 employers and 1,194 employees conducted by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research found that 6 out of every 7 employers reported no negative effect from the law. Additionally, most workers used only three sick days per year, and a quarter of workers surveyed didn’t use any sick days.
“No restaurants shut down or went out of business,” said Saru Jayaraman, director of the Food Labor Research Center at UC Berkeley. “We have a much more accurate sense now of cost.”
Despite preparing for local fights, advocates haven’t ruled out pushing a bill at the state level.
“It may be that the state Legislature can get that done, but we don’t want to put all our eggs in that one basket,” Field of the South Bay Labor Council said. “The prospects of gaining paid sick leave locally … are good. If the state isn’t moving in the very near term — toward a sick paid leave policy — we’re certainly going to continue to move in that direction locally.”