San Francisco Spotlights Workers' Stakes in Midterm Election

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By Aaron Glantz
OneWorld US, Oct 31 2006
SAN FRANCISCO, Oct 31 (OneWorld) - Workers in this city could become the first in the nation to be guaranteed paid sick leave after voters go to the polls her and across the country next Tuesday.

Proposition F on the city's ballot would require that employees earn paid sick leave at the rate of one hour for every 30 hours worked.

The measure is among numerous proposals across the country to address bread-and-butter issues, like the minimum wage, that advocates say federal legislators and authorities have neglected.

Under the San Francisco proposal, new employees would begin to earn sick leave after three months on the job. Employees who work in businesses with fewer than 10 employees could accumulate up to 40 hours of paid sick leave. All other employees could accumulate up to 72 hours.

The city's Board of Supervisors put the measure on the ballot at the urging of low-wage workers and their advocates.

''Right now, workers are forced to choose between going to work sick or risk losing their job,'' said Sarah Flocks of Young Workers United, which runs a drop-in center for workers in the city's restaurant, retail, and hospitality industries.

''Not only is it that restaurants and department stores don't offer any paid time off. Most have very punitive policies for employees who miss work,'' she added.

According to Flocks, 74 percent of restaurant and food service workers have no paid sick leave.

''That's a public health hazard,'' she said. ''You don't want sick people handling your food, but that's exactly what happens when workers don't get paid sick days.''

Under the terms of Proposition F, workers could take paid sick days in order to have physical or mental illnesses or injuries diagnosed or treated. Paid sick leave also could be used for an employee to care for his or her child, sibling, parent, grandparent, grandchild, or domestic partner.

Local immigrants' rights groups have made the proposition a priority this election year.

''There are about 30,000 Chinese immigrant workers in the restaurant and garment industry who stand to benefit from Proposition F, so we are doing a really strong get-out-the-vote effort to get these people out to vote,'' Alex Tom of the Chinese Progressive Association told OneWorld.

He said that for the first time, many rank-and-file immigrant workers are walking the city's precincts in support of the measure.

''There's a general fear of retaliation in a lot of restaurants in Chinatown and San Francisco,'' Tom said, ''but in terms of getting involved with this effort politically with the precinct walking and phone banking, they've been more willing than usual. It really makes them feel like they're part of this country.''

The measure also comes as San Francisco prepares to enact a measure to provide universal health care for all residents.

In July, the city's mayor and all of its supervisors unanimously approved a plan under which mandatory contributions from employers and income-adjusted premiums would cover the cost of everything from checkups and lab tests to prescription drugs, operations, and ambulance rides.

Businesses with more than 50 employees would be required to participate in the plan starting next July while those with 20-49 workers would have until April 2008 to join.

Both plans--covering sick leave and providing health coverage--have advanced with minimal opposition from the business community. Because of that, most observers expect Proposition F to pass.

''Before this proposition was put on the ballot we met with the restaurant association, the small business commission, and the chamber of commerce,'' Flocks, of Young Workers United, told OneWorld. ''We incorporated a lot of their suggestions on how to make this work for business and came out with a piece of legislation that we think will help people care for their health and not be a burden for local business.''

Activists in San Francisco said they hope the passage of Proposition F will start a nationwide trend of requiring paid sick leave for workers.

''We're hoping that if this can pass in San Francisco with a strong measure of support, then it will be the start of a movement to improve conditions around the country,'' Flocks said.

Flocks and the others have modeled their campaign after the so-called living wage movement, in which advocates have moved municipalities to set their own minimum wages at levels higher than state and federal standards.

According to the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN), some 110 U.S. cities have passed living wage ordinances setting wage floors above the federal level. These include New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Philadelphia, San Francisco, and Washington, DC.

Campaigns are under way in more than 115 towns, counties, and universities, the group said, adding that it had joined up with the AFL-CIO labor federation to push campaigns in Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, Missouri, Montana, and Ohio.

Much of the campaigning for living wages is taking place under the umbrella of the Let Justice Roll campaign, which was initiated by the National Council of Churches USA and which comprises some 80 religious and community organizations.