Mind and Body

Earned sick time: working families win a legislative battle

Understanding the key role that Rep. Aaron Regunberg played in negotiating a compromise with legislative leaders

Photo by Richard Asinof

The cafe at Easy Entertainment was jam packed with media and supporters for the signing of the Healthy and Safe Families and Workplaces Act on Sept. 28.

Image courtesy of Rhode Island Working Families

The signing of the new law creating earned sick days in Rhode Island will ensure that some 100,000 working families in Rhode Island will have the opportunity to earn paid sick days beginning on July 1, 2018.

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By Richard Asinof
Posted 10/2/17
The signing of the earned sick day legislation was a compelling sign of the newly found political strength of the progressive wing of the Democratic legislative “Fair Shot” caucus, with Rep. Aaron Regunberg as one of its champions in the House.
What kind of gains could be anticipated by the progressive wing of the Democrats in the 2018 state legislature elections in Rhode Island? How will the business community respond to the new earned sick time law? Could there be a progressive backlash brewing in Rhode Island against the bombastic views of President Donald Trump, led by women? Will talk radio in Rhode Island ever include a more progressive political voice?
The legislative victory led by Rep. Teresa Tanzi to limit access to guns by those involved with domestic violence also represents a monumental shift in the political equilibrium in Rhode Island. On Nov. 9, the Ten Men Project of the R.I. Coalition Against Domestic Violence will be holding its annual Men’s Summit at Providence College in the school’s newly renovated Culture and Diversity Center.
The men’s summit is being coordinated by Lee Clasper-Torch, who is the Men’s Engagement Coordinator at the Coalition.
The initiative seeks to have men better understand their own role in perpetuating domestic violence and to be able to speak up against it.

PROVIDENCE – The signing of The Healthy and Safe Families and Workplaces Act by Gov. Gina Raimondo on Thursday morning, Sept. 28, in the very crowded café of Easy Entertaining in Rising Sun Mills, was hailed as a victory for working families in Rhode Island, guaranteeing that as many as 100,000 Rhode Islanders will now have the opportunity to earn paid sick days and safe days when it is implemented beginning on July 1, 2018.

The newly signed law represents a hard-earned negotiated compromise by legislators, advocates and the business community, a rare outcome in the divisive, increasingly partisan political environment.

Under the new law:

Workers can earn one hour of sick and safe time for every 35 hours they work, with a maximum of three days in 2018, four days in 2019, and five days in 2020.

There is a 90-day waiting time after a worker is hired before he or she can used earned sick time.

Workers can use the earned sick and safe time to recover from illness, seek preventive care, care for a sick family member, or escape from and address domestic violence.

Employers already providing sick days above these minimum standards do not need to change their policies.

At the signing, Raimondo basked in the progressive limelight, hugging Sen. Mary Ellen Goodwin after the signing ceremony and handing her one of the pens, and lauding the work done by Rep. Aaron Regunberg, the original legislative sponsor in the House,, and the work done by Georgia Hollister Isman, state director of the Rhode Island Working Families Party.

Legislative intent
As much as it was deemed a team effort, Regunberg emerged as a key legislative champion for the earned sick time law.

In September of 2016, having just won a primary election, Regunberg told ConvergenceRI in an interview: “One of my top priorities, we’ve talked about this a little bit, is earned sick leave. I think this is an issue whose time has come in Rhode Island.” [See link to ConvergenceRI story below, “At the intersection of hope in Rhode Island.”]

Regunberg continued: “Massachusetts has passed this policy; Connecticut has passed this policy; Vermont has passed this policy. The Speaker always likes to say: we can’t be an outlier here in Rhode Island. Right now, we are an outlier.”

At a rally on Feb. 7, 2017, in the Bell Room at the State House that drew more than 60 people in support of Earned Sick Day legislation, Regunberg said the law to create earned sick time in Rhode Island was not revolutionary, nor should it be controversial.[See link below to ConvergenceRI story, “Competing narratives about health care at the State House.”]

“All we’re doing is stating a basic, boring truth: everyone gets sick sometime,” he told the rally. “And, when you get sick, or a loved one who you care for is sick, you should be able to take a day off from work to care for yourself or for your loved ones. Yet, this is a fundamental security that many Rhode Islanders have no ability to access.”

Regunberg continued: “We are better than this as a society,” adding: “We can make a concrete difference. There is absolutely no reason to wait to pass this legislation. Let’s do it.”

The art of the deal
In May of 2017, when ConvergenceRI next interviewed Regunberg, he sandwiched the interview with a business leader who had voiced his opposition to the legislation to see if there was common ground that could be found.

In the last year, Regunberg emerged as a leading voice of a new coalition of more than 25 progressive legislators, championing the “Fair Shot” agenda, which includes bills to create paid sick leave and increase the minimum wage toward a living wage.

In the interview, Regunberg talked candidly about the ongoing negotiations over the earned sick time legislation.

ConvergenceRI: One of the priorities you set out to accomplish in 2017 was passage of legislation to create paid sick leave for all Rhode Island workers, which seems as if it is likely to happen.
REGUNBERG:
There has been an incredible amount of work from a whole different bunch of organizations and legislators on this issue. I think we’ve moved it forward, in a really powerful way.

There are probably five weeks, six weeks left of this session – hopefully not six weeks. Anything can happen; I don’t want to make any firm predictions.

I’m feeling pretty good. We have a significant path to getting a strong bill passed, and we have an even wider path to getting a fine bill passed. And, we have a definite path where things fall apart; we always have to make that clear.

ConvergenceRI: Can you explain what you mean? What’s the difference between a fine path and a significant path?
REGUNBERG:
For me, it comes down to coverage, pushing for different carve outs. Some industries can have legitimate cases about unique burdens that they may have, but everyone gets sick, and everyone needs earned sick time.

A strong bill is one that covers as many people as possible, and covers the [longest] length of time. We introduced legislation that would give up to 7 days of paid sick time for every Rhode Islander. That is more generous than some other jurisdictions that have passed this; our neighbors in Massachusetts and Connecticut are at 40 hours and five days of paid sick time.

I believe strongly that we cannot and should not be going below five days. [The compromise legislation begins with three days.]

There are also different things, such as the definition of family, about whom you can take sick time off to care for. There are interest groups that want a narrow definition. I’ve been fighting for a more inclusive definition – I wouldn’t describe it as overly broad – that takes into account that we don’t have “Leave It To Beaver” ideal, nuclear families anymore.

ConvergenceRI: Is there horse-trading going on, in negotiations?
REGUNBERG:
There are definitely conversations and negotiations going on, ever since this process started. It’s picked up within the last few weeks. I’ve been working hard to sit down with as many members and leaders of the business community to really try and drill down on their concerns.

From my perspective, some of the concerns [voiced] over this bill are not particularly rooted in reality; there’s been some misinformation.

Some concerns are very rooted in reality, because business owners have a set of responsibilities and burdens. There is a genuine effort to figure out what the issues are how can we address them to find the right balance between employers and workers.

Rumor mill
At the law-signing ceremony, Regunberg showed off his diplomatic skills: he praised House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello for always having an open door policy to talk with him about legislative issues.

Some political pundits have suggested that Regunberg is considering a potential candidacy for Lt. Governor in 2018, challenging the current incumbent Dan McKee in the Democratic primary. Regunberg has been publicly non-committal about his future plans, although he has been actively crisscrossing Rhode Island attending events.

If Regunberg were to decide to run and win the primary, and if Gov. Raimondo were to win her primary, the two would form an interesting ticket: Raimondo is short while Regunberg is tall, about six-foot, three inches.

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