How Paid Sick Leave Emerged as a Democratic Strong Suit

It didn't happen in Washington.

One of the clearest messages to come out of State of the Union was Obama's commitment to paid sick leave. In particular, his commitment to helping states adopt paid sick leave laws and simultaneously ask lawmakers to push a bill through Congress granting workers the opportunity to earn seven days of paid leave when they or their family members have medical needs.

The larger effort—championed by labor and women's groups at the state level for a decade—has been a long time coming, and it's something Obama spoke out in favor of even before he was president. But the president's most recent remarks were something of a high-water mark for the movement.

"Like many other issues in history, it was the work of grassroots independent movements that push and pull these issues into the mainstream," said Jon Green, national deputy director of the Working Families Party, which has long worked on paid sick leave at the state and city levels. "It didn't happen by accident."

And as recently as a few years ago, when Dannel Malloy came out for paid sick leave in the Connecticut governor's race, it wasn't at all clear the issue would reach such political heights.

Malloy ran against Ned Lamont in the Democratic gubernatorial primary in 2010, and early polling showed Lamont easily besting him. One of the biggest things setting the them apart was Malloy's strong, vocal position in favor of paid sick leave, and Malloy, with the help of the Working Families Party and other labor unions and women's advocates, decided to draw that difference out for the public.

"It was a huge issue, no question about it," said Roy Occhiogrosso, a senior adviser on Malloy's 2010 campaign. And the campaign invested considerable outreach around paid sick leave, he added, meeting directly with people most affected by the policy, pushing the issue in debates and even investing in a major ad buy.

At the time, it wasn't an obvious thing for a liberal to do. And some predicted that Malloy's outspokenness on paid sick leave would backfire. By the end of the race, however, pushing the those policies seemed like the obvious choice: Lamont, a multimillionaire businessman who spent nearly $9 million of his personal money on the campaign, was already vulnerable to the efforts to paint him as a heartless business owner, and as the election neared, the polling gap between the two men narrowed to the single digits. Malloy went on to win the primary in an upset, and later, the general election.

"He was the first one who was talking about it as a state-level campaign," said Occhiogrosso, of Malloy's approach to paid sick leave. Soon after he was elected, Connecticut became the first state to have mandatory paid sick leave signed into law. And when Malloy ran for reelection in 2014, he would successfully take up the paid sick leave fight once again, chiding his opponent Tom Foley in an ad campaign.

"It became something other politicians picked up on their campaigns," Occhiogrosso, now managing director of the Global Strategy group, observed. "Most notably, Bill De Blasio."

That's a reference to the New York mayoral campaign in 2013, in which City Council Speaker Christine Quinn was initially considered the presumptive front-runner. That changed as voters began a closer examination of the candidate and, specifically, her failure to bring a bill granting paid sick leave up for a vote.

"When you ask people why they don't like Ms. Quinn," wrote Ginia Bellafante in the The New York Times, "they cite her closeness to the mayor, her reversal on term limit, and the incredibly long time it took her to support paid sick leave for privately employed workers." This in particular, Bellafante adds, makes her seem "not merely opportunistic but petty and unfeeling."

At the time, Quinn maintained that she supported the idea of paid sick leave legislation, but just felt it wasn't good economic policy. That, it turned out, wasn't a politically savvy position. Quinn was publicly booed for her resistance to paid sick leave, and Public Policy Polling from the time found 55 percent of primary voters said her opposition to it made them less likely to vote for her.

It also wasn't popular with women's rights advocates, some of whom have noted that access to paid sick days is unequally distributed across the U.S. population, with low-wage, Hispanic, and immigrant workers among the least likely to have paid sick days. Gloria Steinem, writing in The Times, withdrew her support for Quinn over the issue: "Making life fairer for all women seems more important than breaking a barrier for one woman," she declared.

By the time Quinn finally brought the bill up for a vote, she'd been sitting on it for three years. She would go on to place third in the primaries, with just 14 percent of the vote to De Blasio's 40 percent. And though paid sick leave is far from the only reason Quinn lost, it certainly didn't help her case.

"De Blasio's win has national implications," wrote Lisa Guide of the Rockefeller Family Fund in a Hill op-ed published soon after the election. "It has raised the profile of a public debate that should dominate election cycles for some time: the pent up need for new employment rules that will span the gap between what women in the workforce need and the out-of-date policies of America's workplaces."

Guide's charitable group was instrumental in the fight for paid sick leave in the New York mayoral campaign, and if Obama's recent address or movement in the states is any indication, she's more right than she knew.

Three states—California, Connecticut, and Massachusetts—currently require paid sick leave. And other states such as Maryland, New Jersey, and Oregon are expected to see fights on the issus in the coming year. Some local paid sick leave initiatives were recently adopted in New York City, Oakland, Calif., Portland, Ore., Seattle, and eight cities in New Jersey. And in Philadelphia, the city council will consider a paid sick leave measure soon. (San Francisco has had paid sick leave on the books since 2007.)

Working Families Party's Green thinks the policy push, with the successful politics behind it, isn't going away. "I wouldn't be surprised to see paid sick days used as a national campaign issue for Democrats in 2016," he said.