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D.C. Advocates Fight for Paid Sick Days for All Workers

Emily Crockett

Advocates are linking paid sick days for restaurant workers to a broader fight to raise the minimum wage in Washington, D.C.

Advocates in Washington, D.C., are campaigning to extend mandatory paid sick days to tipped workers, adding to a growing national movement that has seen three major cities pass paid sick day legislation in the last year.

With actions including a packed city council hearing, a whimsical Halloween canvas featuring activists dressed up as sick waiters, and a rally in Freedom Plaza on Friday, the Paid Sick Days for All Coalition is putting pressure on the D.C. Council to rectify its 2008 decision to exclude tipped workers from receiving mandatory paid sick leave.

The coalition is linking its campaign to the fight for an across-the-board minimum wage increase in the District of Columbia. The D.C. city council faces pressure to pass a new living wage bill after the failure of the Large Retailer Accountability Act (LRAA), which would have required Walmart and similar companies to pay employees $12.50 per hour.

Advocates say paid sick days are a common-sense economic justice issue for tipped workers, whose wages lag behind others in the private sector. Eighty percent of restaurant workers in D.C. don’t get paid sick days, and almost 60 percent reported that they have come to work and prepared or served food while sick. Many come to work sick and risk spreading illness because they can’t afford to lose the day’s income or fear losing their jobs. Three days of missed work could wipe out a family’s grocery budget for the month.

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More than two-thirds of tipped restaurant employees are women, and many are single mothers. Sick and safe leave can be used to care for a child who is ill, or to deal with a domestic violence issue. About 40 percent of the private-sector workforce lacks paid sick days, and 75 percent of Americans think that all workers should be granted a minimum number of paid sick days per year.

Belinda Sheppard, the owner of Flava, a small D.C. bar in the Shaw neighborhood, told Rewire that she enthusiastically supports paid sick days. With a small staff of eight people, she said, she can’t afford to risk one person infecting the rest of the staff or her customers.

Sheppard also said she supports raising the tipped minimum wage. “I feel like if people are working for you and helping you make money and make your business a success, that they should also have success,” she said.

A city council hearing last week on a minimum wage increase and paid sick days legislation took 11 hours and had 140 people registered to testify. Councilmember Vincent Orange said at the hearing that “the train has left the station” on a minimum wage bill—it will pass, and the only question is how fast and by how much.

Paid Sick Days for All Coalition members want to make sure this minimum wage legislation includes paid sick days for restaurant workers. They also advocate raising the minimum wage to $12.50 by 2016, paying tipped employees the full minimum wage by 2020, and indexing the minimum wage to inflation.

“Customers, when they go to restaurants, are paying the majority of the worker’s salary,” Monica Kamen, a Paid Sick Days for All organizer, told Rewire. “It’s very unreliable, and a lot of the time workers don’t actually earn the full minimum wage because it’s very easy for employers to take advantage of them.”

Paid sick leave is known to benefit businesses and local economies. San Francisco has thrived since passing paid sick days legislation in 2007, and the Institute for Women’s Policy Research estimates that paid sick leave would net Washington, D.C., businesses $2 million per year. Part of this is due to lower employee turnover.

Paid sick days may still face an uphill battle nationwide. Ten states have passed pre-emptive laws, all sponsored by the American Legislative Exchange Council, that block cities and counties from passing paid sick days laws. But with Jersey City passing the nation’s seventh paid sick days law last month and statewide campaigns gearing up in Massachusetts, New Jersey, and Vermont in addition to D.C., the movement is proving to have momentum.

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