RI Workers Guaranteed Paid Sick Time

Workers in Rhody who live in fear of getting sick or needing a day off just got a big dose of relief. On July 1, the Healthy and Safe Families Workplace Act went into effect. It’s known as the Paid Sick Days/Time-off law and says that employers are mandated to give their workers paid sick leave. Passing it was a miraculous political feat; it only took a year to navigate the General Assembly before getting signed by the governor last year. Legislation this progressive typically doesn’t pass through creeping state house conservatives so quickly.

The law benefits, by estimate, 100,000 RI workers. The short version of how it works is pretty simple: For every 35 hours you work for your employer, you accrue one hour of paid sick time. It is capped for 2018 at three days (24 hours), four days in 2019 (32 hours) before rising to five days in 2020 (40  hours). You can use it for a sick day, preventative care, caring for a loved one or even safe time to escape a domestic violence situation. Specific policies can differ from company to company, but that’s the minimum they have to follow. Workers are advised to ask their employers what their sick-time policies are and report them to the state Department of Labor if they turn out to be non-compliant. There is an important caveat, however; these rules only apply to those companies with 18 or more employees. “That was the result of a compromise.” said Georgia Hollister Isman, state director of the Rhode Island Working Families Party (RI WFP). “We think everyone should get sick days, but lobbyist folks pushed back on that.”

The RI WFP is a political organization new to the Rhody scene that’s behind this tremendous success. It’s the local branch of a national organization intent on bringing progressive change to America and training the next generation of leaders. “We were looking for a way to build additional political power around working families’ priorities,” says Hollister Isman. “[We felt] like those things that regular working men and women need and want every day are almost never a priority at the state house, and there needed to be a structure focused on changing that.”

They started officially during the spring primary season, looking for progressive champions to bang the drum about issues like raising the minimum wage and earned sick days. RI WFP endorsed four candidates that election cycle, Moira Walsh (House District 3), Jeanine Calkin (Senate District 30), Marcia Ranglin-Vassell (House District 5) and Jason Knight (House District 67). Twist ending: All of those candidates won their elections. “It won’t change the balance of power in the state house,” admits Hollister Isman. “But it does get people’s attention.”

And with that attention and that momentum going into 2017, WFP chose to direct their political energies into passing an earned sick days law. Prior to this, Rhode Island had no such mandate or protections for workers, especially those stuck underemployed at part-time jobs. RI WFP went door-to-door, sent postcards, engaged in phone-banking and organized thousands of Rhode Islanders to contact their local representatives to support the law. And their efforts worked.

RI WFP has plenty to focus on going into the next election cycle, but their top priority will be raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour. Massachusetts’ legislature passed similar legislation this year, giving activists such as RI WFP something to emulate.

RI WFP released the latest batch of endorsements last week, and it contains a lot more than just four candidates. “We’re looking for champions to run for office who put these issues front and center, and then when they get elected, they make a tremendous difference in the legislature. Both as outspoken advocates for these issues, and people who send a message to their colleagues that they’re not just political people, these are winning issues,” said Hollister Isman. The candidates they endorsed this year encompass a large swathe of the state, from the bottom to the top of Narragansett Bay. One of them, Laufton Ascencao, running in House District 68, is a veteran organizer from the Sick Leave bill.

There is a massive conservative streak lurking in the Democratic party. Lobbyists on Smith Hill pushed back hard on earned sick leave, and they’ve always pushed back against the minimum wage hikes. And, as I wrote about in Motif’s last issue, some of those endorsed by RI WFP in 2016 now face conservative challengers who, however briefly, had the backing of the state party.

Still, for those of us to the left of the German Kaiser, there’s hope. “That’s one of the fundamental things we believe about Rhode Island,” says Hollister Isman. “We are governed in many ways pretty far to the right from where actual Rhode Island workers and voters are.” And if the way the state party handled the endorsement scandal from last month is any indication, there may be a lot of light at the end of the conservative tunnel.

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