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Sick leave battle could resurface at state Supreme Court

By James Briggs

Sherry Johnson (left) and Rosie Caradine-Lewis, both of Milwaukee, hold signs and chant March 24 during a rally at Milwaukee City Hall after an appellate court upheld the city's sick-leave law. (File photo by Kevin Harnack)

A nonprofit organization that has been pushing in court for Milwaukee workers to receive guaranteed paid time off for illness is conceding the local battle — for now.

But 9to5, National Association of Working Women will keep lobbying for a federal bill that ultimately would inform sick-leave policies in cities such as Milwaukee.

The worker’s rights organization has defended a 2008 referendum, approved by 70 percent of Milwaukee voters, that requires employers provide full-time workers with at least one hour of paid sick time for every 30 hours worked, or nine days a year.

The organization last month won a decision in the Madison-based 4th District Court of Appeals, but the Legislature since has passed a bill banning municipalities from establishing such ordinances. The bill awaits Gov. Scott Walker’s signature.

“We’d love to have a nationwide bill as opposed to a local bill,” said Dana Schultz, lead organizer for 9to5’s Milwaukee chapter. “The movement’s definitely not over.”

The Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce, which challenged the ordinance in court, still is appealing the appellate court decision to the state Supreme Court, said Steve Baas, director of government affairs.

“We’re not taking anything for granted until the governor puts his signature on the new law and it goes into effect,” he said. “Once that happens, it will obviously make the court case moot and we’ll no longer have to (appeal).”

Walker has said he would sign the bill, but has not announced when he would do so. Walker spokesman Cullen Werwie did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Linda Meric, the national director for 9to5, said her organization would continue to lobby for passage of the federal Healthy Families Act, which also includes a mandate for paid sick leave. Meric said she thought the bill could pass in the U.S. Senate this year.

“It would provide a floor (requiring six paid sick days a year), and then states and municipalities would be free to enact policies above and beyond that,” Meric said.

Baas, though, said companies didn’t need laws requiring that they treat their employees well.

“You already have employers working very hard to put together competitive packages of benefits for their employees,” he said. “For some employees, that means additional sick time. For others, that means additional salary and vacation. One of the problems with the Milwaukee ordinance was it was a one-size-fits-all mandate that didn’t allow individual employers to take into account the desires of individual workers.”

The ordinance also failed to consider the “competitive realities of an individual business setting,” Baas said.

But Schultz, who joined 9to5 as a volunteer organizing support for the 2008 referendum, said a federal or local mandate was necessary because the organization’s members couldn’t take time off work to care for themselves or family members when they became sick.

Rather than continuing to focus on the legal battle, though, Schultz said 9to5 began reaching out to businesses to create change.

“We have a workplace wellness project, working with small businesses, gathering information and sharing information not only about paid sick days but a lot of policies that help mothers and caregivers,” Schultz said. “What we are finding is a lot of businesses really want to have these policies, and they’re just finding out ways to make it work administratively.”

While 9to5 acknowledges the battle over the Milwaukee sick-leave ordinance is lost, Schultz said, she’ll continue to pursue the same goal in new ways.

“It took a long time to get family medical leave passed, and to get women’s right to vote, for that matter,” Schultz said. “The movement is not over to get family supporting policies for every worker.”

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