Prince Georgians need paid sick leave

Issues of economic inequality, low-wage work and family health are all connected in the county's pending bill on earned sick leave -- a fight we must win

/By Justin Vest/ This year has seen many important victories for working people. The Supreme Court upheld the Affordable Care Act which has made basic health care more accessible, New York is poised to raise the minimum wage for fast food workers to $15, and Montgomery County made history by passing the strongest paid sick leave bill in the country. With so much good news, one might mistake the current paradigm as some kind of workers’ paradise.

 Let’s take a step back and consider what we’ve won. The better part of Obama’s presidency has been marked by the planning, implementation, endless congressional debate and court challenges for which we now have a better, but still flawed, system that fails to acknowledge health care as a basic human right by providing universal coverage. After three years of demonstrations and sporadic victories in several municipalities, the Fight for $15 movement has achieved its largest victory in New York City which has the potential to snowball into a statewide $15 minimum wage. Putting aside the debate of whether this actually constitutes a living wage in places like New York City (or the DMV area for that matter), that’s years of hard work for what should be a basic right–and we’re still not done.

 That brings us to paid sick leave. Yes, we were effective in bringing a strong bill to Montgomery County, but why did we have to fight at all? We’re debating whether people should be allowed to take care of their sick children or whether we want sick restaurant workers preparing our food. We already know the benefits: fewer workplace injuries, reduced spread of illnesses in schools and childcare centers, and reduced public health care costs. This should be a simple, commonsense policy with unanimous support. So why is it we must gear up for an even tougher fight in Prince George's County?

 A full 43 percent of the county’s private sector workers lack any kind of paid sick leave. Among the poorest residents, those earning less than $35,000 annually, the rate is 48 percent. These are the workers most likely to be employed in food service, retail, and other sectors with high rates of interaction with the general public and they are the least likely to be able to afford to take time off without paid sick leave. More than a quarter of county residents are 18-34, millennials who are just starting out in the working world or are starting families of their own. How are we preparing for a healthy future, if we don’t provide even the minimum level of support for working families?

 Some in the business community say this bill puts an undue hardship on them, but research has consistently demonstrated that paid sick leave laws have no substantive impact on a businesses’ bottom line.  More quietly, some employers are providing paid sick leave while others do not. It is time we made it routine, normal, for all employers, instead of allowing cheaters to gain competitive advantage over those employers who are doing the right thing. That’s how public policy is supposed to work.

 Some members of the Council have voiced support for the bill, but others seem more interested in passing a resolution in support of a statewide bill rather than take real action now for their own constituents. We absolutely need the Maryland General Assembly to take up this issue, but working people cannot put their lives on hold to wait for the state to help with their most basic needs when their local leaders have the power to do so. The Prince George’s County Council has a good bill before them, and a chance to act in praiseworthy solidarity with other local jurisdictions as they did on the minimum wage. The time to act is now! Don’t kill the bill. Pass it out of committee and let the full council vote before the public and show where they stand on basic family protections.