Sick leave mandate will be challenged

Many Milwaukee business owners have expressed outrage and bewilderment about the paid sick leave ordinance that was approved by voters in a citywide referendum earlier this month.

The referendum was approved by 68 percent of the voters, while just 32 percent opposed it. The referendum was placed on the ballot through the process of direct legislation that required a minimum of 25,600 voter signatures in support of the proposal.

The ordinance was not drafted or requested by the Milwaukee Common Council or Mayor Tom Barrett, who has since denounced the law, saying it would have a negative impact on the city.

The Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce (MMAC) has decided to legally challenge the referendum, as many businesses say the referendum puts the City of Milwaukee at a competitive disadvantage. Many Milwaukee-based companies have said they will be forced to look elsewhere to relocate their businesses.

“While we respect the good intentions advocates of this ordinance may have, the hard fact is that passage of this one-size-fits-all government mandate has already had a chilling effect on business attitudes toward Milwaukee,” said Tim Sheehy, president of MMAC.

Michael Best & Friedrich LLP is leading the legal challenge for MMAC.

Several local business owners are denouncing the mandate.

“I think we will have to consider relocating outside the City of Milwaukee, as well as other cost reductions in order to offset these added costs,” said Les Wilson, financial officer and part owner of Pereles Brothers Inc., a plastic injection molder. “We are going to have to shoulder the burden of the added cost of this mandate, and our business is one that we cannot pass the cost on to our customers, without the risk of losing the customer. We can’t afford it.”

9to5, a national grassroots organization advocating for working women, turned in the petition with an estimated 42,000 signatures for the sick leave referendum. The organization’s national headquarters is in Milwaukee, which is why it worked for the sick leave law here, said Amy Stear, Wisconsin director of 9to5. The organization also has chapters in Los Angeles; San Jose, Calif.; Denver; Atlanta, Engelwood, N.J.; Cincinnati; Akron, Ohio; and Warren, Ohio.

“Our organization does a lot of work with low-wage single moms here in the city of Milwaukee, many of whom were struggling to stay in their jobs because they did not have the work support of paid sick days,” said Stear.

The organization also noticed trends in the city of the number of people going to work sick, which decreases productivity and increases the risk of spreading the illnesses, and trends in the number of middle school and high school children missing class to attend to sick siblings because the parents couldn’t get off of work, she said.

“We noticed it was becoming a difficult situation for many parents. It’s ‘How do I figure this out? How do I feed my kids or pay my light bill?’ It was really an issue of parents trying to come up with the best possible solution from an array of solutions that aren’t good,” Stear said. “We really got a lot of this kind of feedback and decided this is the right thing to do, it makes sense for our community and we believe it will be better for business.”

In 2006, the 9to5 Milwaukee chapter began forming a coalition of organizations within the city that agreed with their cause.

According to Stear, more than 50 organizations were involved in the coalition by the time they started researching laws related to the referendum.

“Our experience with the petition drive was really telling,” Stear said. “We realized how important this issue is to a lot of people. Many of the people who signed the petition already had paid sick days through their work. We do have a lot of good employers in Milwaukee who provide that, but even they realized that if they didn’t have paid sick days, they would be in a world of hurt right now too.”

Similar sick date mandates have been passed in San Francisco and Washington, D.C., by other work-and-family conscious organizations, Stear said.

The number of nine days, required by the Milwaukee law for most full-time workers, was selected by taking the average number of sick days an individual at work usually takes, the average number of days that school-age children are out sick, and the average number of children a family in this area has, Stear said.

San Francisco requires employers to provide nine sick days, and the groups in Washington, D.C., lobbied for 10 days, but it was negotiated to three, five and seven days, depending on the number of employees the company has.

“We are not talking negotiation,” Stear said, “We believe that what was passed is the will of the people.”  n

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