Work cheap, work sick, South Carolina

By Brett Bursey
Director, SC Progressive Network

Just when you thought South Carolina couldn’t be more business friendly, the House has unanimously passed a bill, with no public debate, to ensure that we not only work cheap but work sick.

The bill, introduced by House Labor, Commerce and Industry Committee Chairman Bill Sandifer, prohibits local governments from requiring businesses to provide any employee benefits, such as sick leave. If it becomes law, the “work-sick” requirement will be tacked onto a “work-cheap” law Sandifer sponsored in 2002 that prohibits local governments from setting a minimum wage higher than the federal minimum. (South Carolina is one of five states with no minimum wage.)

Both laws have ties to the American Legislative Exchange Council, the corporate-funded bill mill where conservative legislators and corporate members collaborate on “model state legislation” that benefits the corporate bottom line.

Sandifer, an ALEC task force chair, introduced the work-sick bill April 11, a month after Portland, Ore., passed an ordinance requiring business in that city to provide employees at least three days of paid sick leave. Sandifer’s LCI Committee approved his bill on April 24, without debate or a public hearing.

The bill passed both second and final reading on April 30, and was introduced in the Senate on May 1, the last day for bills to cross over between bodies. It’s now in the Senate Judiciary Committee.

The ALEC task force that promoted the language in Sandifer’s bill is co-chaired by YUM! Brands, which owns KFC, Pizza Hut and Taco Bell. Fast food and lodging companies are leading the fight against sick leave.

A Food Chain Workers Alliance study, “The Hands that Feed Us,” found that 79 percent of food-industry workers do not get paid sick leave. A Centers for Disease Control study found that more than half of all outbreaks of the stomach flu can be linked to sick food-service workers.

Numerous studies show that paid sick leave benefits employers who want to retain a skilled and productive workforce, saves more than it costs in medical expenses and reduces the impact of communicable diseases.

The McGill University’s “Work, Family, and Equity Index” reports that at least 145 countries provide paid sick days. Of the 173 countries studied, the United States, Lesotho, Liberia, Papua New Guinea and Swaziland were the only ones with no paid leave for childbirth. The United States provides only unpaid leave for serious illnesses through the federal Family Medical Leave Act, which does not cover all workers.

Congressional efforts to require paid sick leave have been beaten back by the same corporate interests that are backing the state laws to stop cities from requiring sick leave.

Sandifer’s campaign-finance filings show contributions from WalMart, which has a sick-leave policy that can lead to termination. Grand Strand hotels, which rely on low-wage service workers, have contributed $4,200 in the past two years, and ALEC reimbursed Sandifer $1,500 for attending its 2010 conference.

ALEC members have sponsored similar anti-benefit bills that have become law in six states. They target cities in Republican-controlled states that might consider sick-leave ordinances. Ironically, this bill is an example of the very “big government” that these same Republicans rail against.

Imagine that Hilton Head Town Council decides that its well-heeled visitors deserve some assurance that they are not being taken care of by disease-ridden peasants and puts the question to a referendum. This bill would prevent Hilton Head voters from passing an ordinance requiring plantations not to fire the service staff if they are out sick for five days a year.

Under current laws, hundreds of thousands in South Carolina must choose between working sick or getting paid, between staying home with a sick child or getting paid. To many, the right choice means getting fired. This bill will make sure that nothing changes.

The folks from ALEC brought us the photo ID law to restrict who gets to vote. They are now pushing legislation to restrict what we get to vote on.

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