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Sick of it

Orange County activists race against time to push an earned sick-time ordinance

Photo: Rob Bartlett, License: N/A

Rob Bartlett

Members of Organize Now and Citizens for a Greater Orange County make some noise June 30 in downtown Orlando.

On June 28, while all eyes were on the Supreme Court decision on President Barack Obama's Affordable Care Act – most notably its effects on small businesses, states' rights and the individual mandate – a ragtag coalition of local activists was keeping its focus on a different side of the health-care discussion: the almost silent majority of low-wage earners, many of whom aren't allowed to take sick time off from work, whether they have health coverage or not. According to 2010 census estimates, only 46 percent of Orange County workers receive earned (or paid) sick time at their jobs. In fact, the numbers are probably worse than that, says Organize Now Executive Director Stephanie Porta.

"We think it's actually higher, because we know that in places that provide or claim they provide earned sick time, that is used against workers if they take a sick day off," she says. In other words, our region, which is driven by a service economy, is not necessarily interested in serving those who do the labor that keeps the money flowing. Porta and others are pushing to get a question on the November ballot that would give employees of many Orange County businesses the basic right to call out sick, get paid for it (after they've earned the time) and not fear losing their jobs. The initiative also seeks to provide time off to care for loved ones, including all family members and domestic partners.

The initiative comes in sharp contrast to Florida Gov. Rick Scott's one-stop shop take on job growth: less regulation for businesses coupled with more financial incentives. In March, the governor signed an economic development package into law that would provide more than $1 billion in tax relief and reduce regulatory oversight from state agencies for businesses willing to make the leap to set up shop in the Sunshine State. But along with the anticipated business growth in the state comes the fear that more businesses – many of which are all too willing to cut corners to make a buck – will take advantage of the fact that the state doesn't offer enough protections for its workforce. That's the situation that Porta – along with others comprising Organize Now parent group Citizens for a Greater Orange County – are trying to prevent.

The earned sick-time initiative poses a simple question to voters: "Shall Orange County adopt an ordinance providing that employees of businesses in Orange County earn up to 56 hours of sick time each year unless the business provides more – with pay required only in businesses with 15 or more employees as defined – to seek medical care, recover from illness/injury, care for a family member as defined, or use when necessary during a public health emergency, with such ordinance enforceable in court?"

It may not seem like a lot to ask, but given the strict time limit to make the ballot (more than 43,000 signatures are required by the middle of this month) and the expected industry pushback on the issue, the battle is massive. Porta insists, however, that fairness will prevail. "According to our polls, Republicans support this as well. Democrats support it more. Independents are clearly in favor of it, too," she says. "Especially when you get into a lot of religious communities, people see it as they shouldn't have to choose between their job and their family."

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