Thank you for smoking ... Portland style

By Steve Hughes of Portland, Oregon. Steve is the state director of the Oregon Working Families Party. Last fall, he wrote "The Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval for Shemia Fagan".

The debate over Earned Sick Days in Portland is nearing its denouement, with a final hearing and council vote just around the corner. When the ordinance passes in Portland, the campaign will move to the state level. In a very real way, a victory in Portland sets the table for a larger statewide fight.

The opposition to legislation that would allow workers to take a day off if they or a family member is ill has read like a screenplay for the movie Thank You For Smoking ... with perhaps a Portlandia twist. Reviewing the tactics of the opposition is therefore instructive in terms of learning about the ways in which business interests like Chambers of Commerce and conservative editorial boards (to name a few) still wield out-sized influence in local—and ultimately statewide— policy making.

Delay: Force additional process to bog down forward momentum

For business interests that regularly belly-ache about too much process, too much red tape, too much touchy-feely-kumbaya-hand-holding in the City of Portland, it is rather amusing to hear them now claim that there has not been ENOUGH process to develop the Earned Sick Days Policy.

So let’s unpack that a little. The process to pass Earned Sick Days in Portland began over a year ago. While the Fritz-Saltzman commission is now in the news, what is being overlooked is the fact that months ago City Hall convened stakeholder groups of businesses (on both sides of the issue) and advocates to hash out a draft policy. No one got everything they wanted in those stake-holder meetings, but a workable compromise was crafted.

For months some of the business interests that are now so publicly opposed to the sick days ordinance refused to participate in this process. Calls to them went unanswered. Emails to them languished in their inboxes. However, realizing at a late date that the policy did in fact have legs, these business lobbies exercised their power to force an EXTRA process.

Let’s be very clear: the Fritz-Saltzman commission is not a truncated, rushed process, as some of the business lobbyists that are on the commission now complain—it is additional process on top of what has already been a year-long conversation in the City of Portland.

Defer: “This is a matter best left to the state”

If you fall for this one I’ve got a bridge in Brooklyn I want to sell you. Opponents have argued that they absolutely support sick days for everyone but they really just feel it should be passed at the state level. Hmmm.

Does anyone believe they will suddenly support something they have fought so hard just because we change venues? Do we believe this when Associated Oregon Industries is already on record from over a year ago saying they that they would oppose sick days in Oregon in any shape or form. In fact, AOI announced their opposition not in response to anything even happening in Oregon, but rather in response to online tweets about the passage of an Earned Sick Days ordinance in Seattle!

But, setting my skepticism aside for one second, I am willing to grant that it is absolutely correct when some of these business interests argue it would be easier to administer a consistent policy in all jurisdictions of the state. However, I would argue that the way we get there is by passing the strongest possible law in the state’s biggest city, and then using that as leverage to pass a strong bill for all of Oregon against the already public opposition of the AOI.

Distract: Cite bogus “studies,” “facts,” and “experts.”

This is perhaps the most distasteful aspect of the opposition to the Portland Earned Sick Days ordinance, and the one that most closely mirrors the tactics pioneered by Big Tobacco and picked up by the Chemical Industry and those who are fighting climate change legislation.

The opponents of Earned Sick Days are now touting a “study” out of Connecticut, the first place in the U.S. to pass statewide sick days legislation. The think thank that produced the bogus report is called “Employment Policies Institute” (EPI), conspicuously named to nearly match the real and widely respected “Economic Policy Institute” (EPI). Funded by corporate interests, the “Evil Twin” EPI study makes the predictable argument: Connecticut’s sick days law is killing jobs.

On its face, this is annoying. But the fact that some business news outlets, such as the Portland Business Journal, then report it like it’s real data is destructive.

Meanwhile, the real data from the Connecticut Department of Labor reports that employment has only grown since the passage of the paid sick days law in Connecticut in the Leisure and Hospitality and Education and Health Services sectors.

It’s time to take action

The right to take a day off from work when you or a family member is ill is already guaranteed by 145 other countries around the world. When approximately 40% of U.S. workers don’t have this basic right (it goes up to 80% in the service sector) the time for the “thank-you-for-smoking” tactics has long since passed. After a year of waiting, working people are looking forward to action from the Portland city council, and ultimately the Oregon legislature, to pass this most basic labor standard.


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