Analysis Economic Justice

Rhode Island Will Become Eighth State to Guarantee Paid Sick Leave—and It’s No Coincidence

Bryce Covert

A number of factors combined into a potent political force resulting in the bill that is now headed to Gov. Gina Raimondo’s desk.

Rhode Island passed a paid family leave program four years ago and is still one of just five states that have one. But it wasn’t until this week that it also decided to guarantee workers the right to short-term paid time off to deal with illnesses or recover from violence.

On Tuesday night, the state legislature passed a bill requiring most companies to let their employees accrue up to five paid sick and safe days a year. It now heads to Gov. Gina Raimondo’s desk, who called for just such a bill in her State of the State address earlier this year.

Her signature will make it the eighth state in the country to guarantee that workers can take paid time off from work if they or a member of their family gets sick. It’ll also be the third state to require both paid sick leave and paid family leave for the arrival of new babies or serious ailments. An estimated 100,000 state residents will get the new relief of a paid sick day starting next summer.

The Rhode Island legislature considered a paid sick leave bill last year, but it didn’t get much traction. That’s when a number of different factors intervened.

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One was that the Working Families Party, which had set up in the state in 2016 but didn’t do much work on the bill, decided to support a slate of progressive candidates running for the state legislature in November’s election who were all openly campaigning on paid sick leave. “Our legislature is often more conservative than it looks like on paper,” explained Rachel Flum, executive director of the Economic Progress Institute. While the state is heavily Democratic, many in the legislature tend to lean toward the center.

In the end, the Working Families Party-backed candidates won four Democratic primaries and two general election races. “It gave us tremendous momentum,” said Georgia Hollister Isman, the organization’s state director in Rhode Island.

It wasn’t just because people who supported the policy were now in the legislature, but also because of the message it sent to everyone else. “The more transactional powers in Rhode Island were like, ‘Oh wow, this is an issue,’” Hollister Isman said. And although the state house speaker usually dictates the legislative agenda, the progressive members got together and crafted an economic justice agenda with paid sick leave at the top of the list.

It also took building a broad coalition of advocates to press on the issue, including labor unions, children’s advocates, the AARP, domestic violence organizations, racial equality groups, and women’s rights groups. Survivors of domestic violence shared stories about abusive partners who used a lack of guaranteed paid time off of work to keep them from their jobs. Children’s groups urged the importance of sick leave for working parents so that kids don’t get stuck in school nurses’ offices all day or, worse, have to be brought to the emergency room at night because their parents can’t take them to a doctor during work hours. AARP warned about how many people are now caring for their aging parents.

A new wave of impassioned activists also flowed into the movement, newly energized by Donald Trump’s victory and looking for something concrete to accomplish at the local level. “People are more mobilized to get involved this year after the national election,” Flum said. As one example, Hollister Isman said that the Working Families Party organized a community meeting right after the election and 1,000 people showed up—in a state with a population of just over 1 million people. “People were looking at things they could do at the state and local level to protect working families,” she said. “This is one thing that really activists and ordinary people and organizations working together could … accomplish.”

And it took the full-throated involvement of a supportive public. Members of the coalition knocked on many doors campaigning for support. Constituents then sent thousands of postcards and made emails and calls to their lawmakers in support of paid sick leave. In some districts, lawmakers received postcards from one in 15 of their constituents. “It became a thing that was impossible to ignore,” Hollister Isman said. People kept showing up at the statehouse to show their support, including significant numbers who had never done such a thing before. They shared their stories of needing paid time off to deal with domestic violence or a health condition. “It takes some courage to do that,” she added.

All of the factors combined into a potent political force. “It became not a question of whether it would pass, it was just what it would be,” Flum said. “So then the fight really was how strong a bill it would be.”

The bill that the state legislature just passed includes some compromises from earlier versions. Rather than allow workers to build up seven paid days off a year, it caps it at five by 2020. Rather than cover all employees, it exempts those who work at a company with 17 or fewer employees—although those who are exempt from paid sick days still have to be able to accrue unpaid days off. It also includes preemption language that blocks the state’s cities from going above and beyond the new law.

But other pieces of it go beyond what most places have enacted. By including “safe” leave, lawmakers have made it clear that domestic violence survivors and the victims of stalking or sexual assault are included—something not all laws include. Even more unique is the definition of family members. Sick leave can be used to care for them in most laws, but in Rhode Island, it won’t be limited to those who are related by blood or marriage. “We really wanted to make sure the family definition would allow folks time off to take care of older people they know even if they’re not directly related to them,” Flum said.

Advocates now hope that the victory for paid sick leave will blow wind into the sails of a parallel effort to improve the state’s paid family leave program, which currently gives workers just four weeks off and only at 60 percent of their normal pay. “Lower-income folks [are] often paying into the system, but they then can’t afford to take a pay cut of 40 percent of their wages to actually use the time,” Flum noted. So the same coalition that fought for paid sick leave plans to turn its attention to family leave next and continue the “robust conversation this year about the need for caring for others,” in Flum’s words.

CORRECTION: The Working Families Party had four wins in Rhode Island’s 2016 Democratic primary election, not three as a previous version of the piece stated.

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