A Thursday court ruling would guarantee mandatory paid sick days for workers of Milwaukee-based companies. But the state Legislature could get the last word.
The Madison-based 4th District Court of Appeals declared constitutional a 2008 referendum, approved by 70 percent of Milwaukee voters, that mandates full-time workers earn at least one hour of paid sick time for every 30 hours worked. That averages out to nine days per year.
Businesses with 10 or fewer workers would only have to give full-time workers five days of sick time.
Workers’ rights organizations declared the decision a victory.
“Wisconsin, as we’ve seen in the past couple weeks, cares about labor, cares about workers,” said Dana Schultz, lead organizer for 9to5, National Association of Working Women, Milwaukee. The organization defended the ordinance in court when the city of Milwaukee opted not to.
A written statement attributed to Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett reaffirmed his opposition to the sick-leave ordinance.
The battle, though, seems destined to end in Madison rather than Milwaukee. The state Legislature already has taken steps to render the Court of Appeals verdict irrelevant, and the case could return to the Wisconsin Supreme Court.
The Senate earlier this month passed a bill prohibiting municipalities from enacting ordinances, even through voter referendum, that would mandate sick leave. The bill awaits action in the Assembly.
Neither state Sen. Leah Vukmir, R-Wauwatosa, who sponsored the bill, nor state Rep. Chris Kapenga, R-Delafield, who sponsored a similar bill in the Assembly, were available for comment Thursday, aides said.
Steve Baas, director of government affairs for the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce Inc., the plaintiff in the court case, said he’s disappointed in the ruling but confident the Legislature will put an end to the ordinance before it takes effect.
“We’re just digging into the entire opinion and looking at what options might be available,” Baas said.
If the ordinance takes effect, Baas said, it would further stress an already troubled Milwaukee business community.
“I think it has grave consequences for the region’s economy,” Baas said. “You make every job in the city of Milwaukee more expensive to create, and that is what the Dane County Court of Appeals did. There’s no way to candy coat the effect of this ruling.”
The Court of Appeals decision rejected MMAC’s argument — as well as the finding of Milwaukee Circuit Judge Thomas Cooper — that the sick-leave ordinance is unconstitutional. Perhaps most notably, the court ruled there is no constitutional requirement that ballot language be all-inclusive. MMAC argued that a provision requiring victims of sexual abuse and domestic violence be allowed time off to go to court or to move to safe locations was unconstitutional because no such language appeared on the ballot for voters to read.
The Court of Appeals, though, ruled “the ballot did comply with the statutory requirement that it contain ‘a concise statement of (the ordinance’s) nature.’”
Scott Beightol, an attorney for MMAC, said the ruling failed to adequately answer MMAC’s arguments.
“I think there’s a whole series of unanswered questions as to what is a concise statement,” Beightol said. “What should the voter be presented with when that voter acts as a citizen-legislator and decides (laws) without any kind of legislative history, hearings, due process and fact-finding that our democracy is used to seeing?
“When a voter walks in and picks up a ballot, apparently there doesn’t have to be much description in that ballot for the voter to be a citizen-legislator.”
The case, Beightol said, could return to the Supreme Court, which in October failed to reach a decision. The high court voted 3-3, sending the case back to the Court of Appeals. MMAC will decide soon whether to appeal, Beightol said.
Schultz, meanwhile, celebrated the victory Thursday, but said she’s prepared for a two-pronged fight to ensure the sick-leave ordinance takes effect.
“Big business in Milwaukee has been trying to fight this legislation from the beginning,” she said. “They think they have a lot of sway at the Capitol now and are trying to undermine Milwaukee’s vote by overturning it at the state level.
“We have to be fighting at the Capitol, as well as Milwaukee, to make sure there’s swift implementation.”