Ted Bobrow

City’s troubling decision to sit out sick leave appeal

By - Sep 15th, 2009 01:25 pm
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File photo of Mayor Barrett. Photo, courtesy City of Milwaukee.

File photo of Mayor Barrett. Photo, courtesy City of Milwaukee.

Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett made it clear that he opposed the ordinance requiring employers in the city to provide sick leave to their workers when it went to the voters last November.

Too great of a burden on businesses, he said.

But he also promised to respect the outcome of the election. And when nearly 70 percent of the voters supported the ordinance, it seemed like the people had spoken pretty loudly and clearly.

So when the largest business lobby in town, the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce, challenged the ordinance in court it focused a spotlight on the mayor.

Would he stand by his word and fight on behalf of the expressed will of the people or not?

When the city attorney announced late on Friday that he would not appeal Judge Thomas Cooper’s decision striking down the ordinance, we had our answer.

Beware late Friday news because it’s often something that someone wants to slip by you unnoticed.

The folks at the local chapter of 9to5, the National Organization for Working Women, who organized the push for the sick leave ordinance deserve huge praise for fighting the good fight on this issue.

Volunteers spread across the city last summer collecting the necessary signatures to get the proposal on the ballot. They worked closely with city lawyers to ensure that the language met muster. They enlisted the help of experts familiar with every nuance of these kinds of laws to ensure that it was on solid ground if and when it was challenged.

On the other side, the MMAC made little effort to engage the public before the election and its arguments challenging the validity of a democratic election following the outcome seemed remarkably dubious.

MMAC Government Affairs vice president Steve Bass declared that mandating sick leave was equivalent to an act of terrorism. R-i-i-i-ight. And child labor laws are the work of Satan. I shudder to imagine what he must think of health care reform.

Shortly after that bizarre remark, MMAC President Tim Sheehy became the public face of the anti-sick leave movement. Though remarkably easy-going, Sheehy didn’t fare any better on the debate circuit. His assertion that people could not be trusted to make important decisions by referendum was hardly a crowd-pleaser.

But ultimately this was going to come down to the courts. When Judge Cooper’s courtroom filled up with a crowd of sick leave supporters he insisted that whatever decision he reached would undoubtedly be appealed.

To his credit, Cooper dismissed most of the objections of the MMAC. No, the state’s referenda process is legal and time-honored. Sorry, sick leave is not the same as pay which can only be mandated by the state.

But he still ruled that the ordinance was “invalid and unconstitutional” because it would require paid leave for reasons outside the traditional definition of sick, that is, it extended the benefit to the victims of domestic or sexual violence or stalking who often need time off from work to prepare for or attend a court hearing.

The city had requested that this element of the ordinance be considered separately from the rest but the Cooper insisted he couldn’t do that.

Obviously, it would have been nice and neat to maintain the language focused on the specifics of sick employees but 9to5 received assurances from the city’s lawyers that the attempt to extend the benefit to the small class of workers who are victims of domestic abuse was “severable” and would not doom the main purpose of the ordinance.

But Judge Cooper ruled that this obviously well-intentioned and extremely minor aspect violated the requirement that the voters be given a “concise statement” of the law and could not be severed from the rest of the ordinance.

So he adroitly managed to kick the can down the road without ruling in favor of any of the MMAC’s flimsy objections.

It falls to David-like 9to5 to continue doing battle with the deep-pockets of the MMAC without any help from the city.

Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett is riding a wave of popularity because of how he responded when he happened upon a woman shouting for help. Admirably, he is using the incident as an opportunity to call attention to the serious issue of domestic violence.

Yet when it comes to respecting the will of the voters on the sick leave ordinance and following through on an effort to offer leave to victims of abuse, he has apparently decided that discretion is the better part of valor.

See my earlier thoughts on this debate here.

Categories: Gray Matter, News

0 thoughts on “City’s troubling decision to sit out sick leave appeal”

  1. Anonymous says:

    Thanks for the quality article. My theory is that Cooper’s opinion was designed to “kick the can down the road” and keep this issue in the air until, hopefully, the federal government passes a nation-wide sick leave law which would produce the same or similar benefits of the ordinance without the potential competitive disadvantage to Milwaukee. A higher court could easily overturn the decision in the future.

    The will of the people does deserve respect. Paid sick leave is a controversial issue, and I’m not entirely sure whether the benefits of the ordinance would outweigh the costs for Milwaukee residents, but the people made their voices heard loud and clear. Milwaukee should have joined the appeal, even if those in charge think the ordinance is a bad idea. That’s what you do in a democracy.

    Here’s a piece that I wrote about the issue prior to Cooper’s decision:

    http://www.creamcitizen.org/pg/blog/nfholton/read/515/milwaukee-sick-leave-ordinance-the-legal-issues

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