Legislature banned cities from requiring employers to offer paid sick leave, even if voters approved.
About a decade ago, Milwaukee resident Tracy Jones was working with a temp agency and had been placed in a factory where she made $11.25 an hour and had to stand for the entirety of her eight-hour shift.
Despite severe pain in her leg, she pushed through. When Jones, 52, finally got her leg checked out, it turned out to be a blood clot.
Jones is just one of the millions of Americans — as many as 90 percent — who have worked through illnesses. She couldn’t risk losing a day’s pay — or worse, her job or apartment, for which she paid $750 a month — because her employer didn’t provide sick leave.
Now, as coronavirus spreads around the world and takes a foothold in Wisconsin, Jones fears workers like her will have to make an even graver choice than she had to with her blood clot.
“Coronavirus is deadly,” said Jones, who is now a member of 9to5, also known as the National Association of Working Women. “It’s one thing to have to choose between your job and your family, but now I’ve got to choose between my job and my health? Nobody should have to do that. Everybody’s going to die, but who’s trying to rush that?”
She said she previously found herself unemployed and even evicted because she took days off while sick.
Self-isolation is recommended for anyone who suspects they may have come into contact with a coronavirus carrier, but it poses a significant dilemma for working-class citizens without sick leave.
“From either perspective, it’s an awful choice to have to make as a worker,” said Peter Rickman, executive director of the Milwaukee Area Service and Hospitality Workers Organization, or MASH.
Local and state governments have tried to mandate paid sick leave. In 2008, Milwaukee residents passed a referendum to require employers to allow their workers to accrue up to 72 hours of paid sick leave annually.
The Legislature, supported by former Republican Gov. Scott Walker, responded by passing a law in 2011 to ban all Wisconsin cities from implementing such paid leave mandates. The law killed Milwaukee’s ordinance, a judge ruled, despite 9to5’s efforts to uphold the ordinance.
At that time, Wisconsin was just the second state to pass preemptive legislation. By 2018, 20 more states had passed similar measures, according to analysis by the Pew Charitable Trusts.
“I don’t think anybody wants to go to an arena or to a theater or a restaurant and be seated by a hostess who’s got a communicable illness like the coronavirus,” Rickman said.
MASH successfully unionized the workforce at Milwaukee’s Fiserv Forum in January, giving all workers a minimum wage of $15 and ensuring sick leave for even part-time employees. But Rickman said he wishes unionization hadn’t been a necessity to get those benefits.
“We can’t leave these things up to just union contracts,” Rickman said.
Robert Kraig, executive director of Citizen Action of Wisconsin, said a lack of legislation ensuring sick leave is a bipartisan failure. Kraig said he was on Independent Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders’ national platform committee during his 2016 presidential run, and the committee decided on a “very small” payroll tax to guarantee paid leave. The proposal never made it to the mainstream.
“It was torpedoed by Hillary Clinton and her campaign, so it did not become part of the Democratic platform,” Kraig said.
A group of federal lawmakers, including Wisconsin Sen. Tammy Baldwin, introduced legislation on Monday that would mandate employers give 14 days of paid sick leave during public health emergencies, including the current outbreak. It is unclear if the legislation will go anywhere, but President Donald Trump is mulling providing unspecified protections for hourly workers and bailing out businesses.
Jones said conservatives might consider mandatory paid sick leave to be government overreach, but said it shouldn’t matter, especially in a time of crisis.
As of Tuesday, 647 Americans had been infected and 25 had died in 35 states and Washington, D.C., according to the Centers for Disease Control. Worldwide, there were nearly 115,000 confirmed cases and more than 4,000 deaths, according to the World Health Organization.
“The government overreaches all the time,” she said. “They tell you who can smoke and how old you got to be to drink and all that, so why wouldn’t it help with people’s health?”