By Mike Appleton, Guest Blogger
“The United States is the only advanced economy that does not guarantee its workers any paid vacation time and is one of only a few rich countries that do not require employers to offer at least some paid holidays.”
-Rebecca Ray, Mila Sanes and John Schmidt, No Vacation Nation (Center for Economic and Policy Research, May, 2013)
The leisure and hospitality industry in Central Florida employs over 216,000 people, more than 20% of the entire Metro Orlando workforce. These are primarily low-wage jobs, with few benefits. Hotel maids, for example, earn a median wage of $9.20 per hour. It is estimated that 81% of the lowest-wage workers have no ability to earn paid sick time. Nationally, a study by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research concluded that 37% of working women (some 13,000,000) in companies with more than 15 employees cannot take a paid sick day if they or a family member are ill. Among employed Latinos (a quickly growing demographic in Orange County, Florida), 49% lack access to any paid sick leave.
The combined effect of low wages and no benefits means that on any given day tens of thousands of Metro Orlando workers must decide whether to go to work sick, send a sick child to school, or stay home without pay and even risk termination of their employment. In May of 2012, a coalition of Orlando activists began a citizen’s initiative to mandate that private employers in Orange County with 15 or more employees provide workers with up to 7 days of paid sick leave each year. That effort has generated two lawsuits to date and the quick adoption of an ALEC-inspired state law preempting the Orange County initiative.
The Orlando initiative required a minimum of 22,000 voter signatures to submit the proposal to the Orange County Commission, which could then either adopt it as an ordinance or place it on the ballot for the next general election. Organizers procured over 50,000 valid signatures before presenting the paid sick leave proposal to the Commission, seemingly guaranteeing that in the worst case it would be on the ballot for the November, 2012 election, an election in which Pres. Obama was predicted to easily carry an increasingly Democratic Orange County.
But the referendum didn’t happen. Instead, following a contentious Orange County Commission meeting on September 11, 2012, commissioners voted 4-3 to postpone a referendum due to expressed concerns over the allegedly “confusing” language of the proposal. Proponents quickly filed suit to overturn the Commission vote, but were unable to secure a ruling prior to the November election. In February of this year, however, a rare three-judge panel of the Orange County Circuit Court unanimously ruled that the Commission had violated its own charter by failing to either adopt the proposal as presented or submit it to the voters. The ruling was blunt. If the Commission “can delay for an indefinite period of time a vote on an initiative,” the judges concluded, it would render ”voter initiatives an illusory provision.” The panel ordered the Commission to place the proposal on the next general election ballot. The victory was decisive, but for the fact that that the next general election in Orange County is the primary election in August of 2014.
While the suit against the Commission was pending, members of the media filed open records requests for copies of emails and text messages by Commission members during the September meeting. The resulting disclosures have produced another suit charging the Commission with violating Florida’s Sunshine laws. It appears that during the course of the September meeting, Commissioners were secretly fielding and responding to text messages from lobbyists opposed to the paid sick leave proposal, including Orlando-based Darden Restaurants, a member of ALEC and the parent company of Red Lobster, Olive Garden and other chains. Discovery in that case has also revealed that several days prior to the Commission meeting, Orange County Republican Chairman Lew Oliver texted a friendly Commissioner requesting “at least one good faith straight face test reason to at least delay it long enough to keep if off the ballot in November. After that, the Legislature can deliver the kill shot.”
The “kill shot” has been delivered. House Majority Leader and ALEC member Steve Precourt from Orlando introduced a bill in January modeled on the Wisconsin preemption statute. The final version enacted on May 2, 2013 is even broader than the Wisconsin act. CS/HB 655 prohibits any political subdivision in the state from mandating the provision of employment benefits not otherwise required by state or federal law. In addition, it prohibits the local adoption of any ordinance requiring the payment of a minimum wage other than a state or federal minimum wage, thereby preempting so-called “living wage” ordinances as well.
As of this writing, Gov. Rick Scott has not publicly announced whether he will sign or veto the legislation, but the betting is that it will become law.
Walt Disney World, which employs over 53,000 workers in Central Florida, strongly lobbied in favor of the preemption legislation, even refusing to accept a petition signed by over 6,000 mothers requesting that the company reconsider its position on paid sick leave. A few weeks ago, Disney announced that its profits for the first quarter of 2013 had increased by 32% to $1.5 billion.
Sources: Ben Markeson, “Orlando would be first in South to require paid sick time,” People’s World, May 18, 2012; “Alec in Florida,” (media.progressflorida.org/files/alecinflorida.pdf), 2012; David Damron, “GOP state lawmakers aim to kill local sick-time measures,” Orlando Sentinel, January 6, 2013; David Damron, “Judges order Orange to put sick time on next ballot,” Orlando Sentinel, February 15, 2013; Brendan Fischer, “Efforts to Deliver ’Kill Shot’ to Paid Sick Leave Tied to ALEC,” PR Watch, April 3, 2013; Jim Stratton, “Orlando jobs machine cranks out low pay,” Orlando Sentinel, April 7, 2013; Harry Bradford, “Disney World Fights Against Paid Sick Days For Florida Employees, Huffington Post, April 27, 2013; David Damron, “Amid huge profits, activists slam Disney fight against paid sick time,” Orlando Sentinel, May 8, 2013; David Damron, “Judge will review ’textgate’ messages privately,” Orlando Sentinel, May 21, 2013; Kristen Gwynne, “One Quarter of Americans Don’t Get Paid Days Off,” AlterNet, May 29, 2013).