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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.

Last month, the Food Chain Workers Alliance released a report that found that only 13.5 percent of U.S. workers in food service earn a livable wage (that includes grocery store employees, farm workers and servers, among others), and that more than half of all workers in the food industry do go to work sick because of financial insecurity. The executive director of the alliance, Joann Lo, told NPR food blog The Salt last month that the implications of these findings were broader than the swath of impoverished employees polled. "I think so few food employers offer benefits like paid sick days because they think it will cost them money and they will lose profit," she said. "I don't think they're understanding that when food workers go to work sick, they're getting co-workers sick, and they're getting consumers sick. It's impacting the safety of food." The same blog reports that, according the Centers for Disease Control, 20 percent of food-borne illness outbreaks are linked to sick workers. In Central Florida, the scope of the problem expands when you consider the public interactions of unwell theme park employees (Porta says she has heard stories from both Disney and SeaWorld workers) and hospitality staff. "A lot of our youth are in part-time jobs and unfortunately a lot of the business owners don't take the youth seriously," she says. "'Well, they have a hangover,' and stuff like that is common."

The local earned sick-time movement is part of a national campaign to push paid-leave ordinances and legislation protecting and improving the rights of low-wage earners. The first such ordinance was passed in San Francisco in 2007; that has become the template for earned sick-time ordinance efforts like the one in Orange County. A survey conducted by the Institute for Women's Policy Research in 2011 found that the San Francisco ordinance was "functioning well." Among the institute's findings about workers: People with paid sick days were less likely to use them all; minority workers saw the greatest positive impact; parents who were able to stay home with a sick child were more than 20 percent less likely to send said child to school sick with a contagious disease. Perhaps more importantly, though, six out of seven businesses reported no detriment to profitability, and only one-sixth had to overhaul their sick-time policies. Two-thirds of employers supported the measure after it was enacted.

According to the National Partnership for Women & Families, similar measures are being actively pursued in 20 states and cities. In 2011, Connecticut was the first to enact a statewide paid sick-day law.

In Orange County, the stakes are high. If the group succeeds in Central Florida, it will be the first such ordinance in the South to pass, something Porta hopes will influence other communities to consider the issue – in a similar way to the influence of Orlando's groundbreaking passage of a domestic-partnership registry. Organize Now and Citizens for a Greater Orange County initially set out to push the ordinance through a city vote in Orlando, but because of election rules presented to them by Orange County Supervisor of Elections Bill Cowles, they switched to a countywide strategy last month.

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