Enforcement Agencies, Advocates Roll up Their Sleeves at Paid Sick Days Convening in San Francisco

By Liz Ben-Ishai

“It’s lonely at the top.” You may not associate these words with enforcing labor standards. However, in 2006, when San Francisco voters approved a ballot initiative to guarantee workers paid sick days, the city was very much alone. As the first U.S. jurisdiction to provide this basic right, San Francisco was a pioneer. The city’s Office of Labor Standards Enforcement (OLSE) effectively wrote the book on enforcing paid sick days.

Ten years later, 36 other jurisdictions have passed their own paid sick days laws. And thanks to the hard work of OLSE staff and community partners, agencies in other cities have strong model to look to as they establish their own enforcement practices.

Last month, CLASP was proud to co-sponsor the  “Making Paid Sick Days Work” convening with the City of San Francisco. The event brought together over 100 agency staff and advocates from more than 20 jurisdictions with paid sick days laws. Participants shared strategies and best practices for ensuring these  laws truly work for all stakeholders, from vulnerable workers to small businesses.

Keynote speeches by Saru Jayaraman, co-founder and co-executive director of the Restaurant Opportunities Centers United (ROC-United), and Julie Su, California’s labor commissioner, highlighted implementation challenges and opportunities. Jayaraman put in perspective the challenges of restaurant workers; in an industry where so many workers depend on tips to survive—and are left to endure harassment, financial insecurity, and unpredictability as a result—claiming one’s right to take a sick day can be extraordinarily difficult.

Su, a strong voice for reforming labor standards enforcement across the country, described her agency’s strategic use of resources to maximize impact. Su challenged widely held (but inaccurate) views on the role of labor standards enforcement agencies. Agencies are not “neutral,” she explained. Rather, they are “on the side of the law.” Su encouraged fellow enforcement officials to set a high bar for compliance, standing with mistreated workers as well as good employers who meet their obligations. While they should be impartial in adjudicating cases and evaluating evidence, they need not be neutral; instead, they should commit unwaveringly to justice and the law.

This philosophy informed discussions throughout the convening. For example, Seattle and San Francisco enforcement staff joined their community partners (the Fair Work Center and Chinese Progressive Association, respectively) to describe “co-enforcement” efforts. This approach brings community groups, who have relationships with often hard-to-reach workers, into the enforcement process—helping with outreach, intake, and other aspects of enforcement. The possibilities intrigued agency staff from elsewhere in the country; many were eager to adopt similar models in their cities and states.

For new agencies just beginning their work on sick days enforcement (many of whom were in attendance) to get on their feet. For example, staff from Tacoma, WA and New York City led a workshop on the fundamentals of setting up a new agency or agency office, including operations, hiring, and rulemaking. Another workshop described systems for managing data and ensuring transparency within agencies. Lastly, in a special session, California’s department of industrial relations brought together agencies from the six California cities that have paid sick days laws, providing an opportunity to coordinate activities and maximize impact.

Speakers at a City Hall reception on the first night of the convening emphasized this shift. Sonya Mehta—who led the campaign to pass San Francisco’s paid sick days law with colleagues at Young Workers United, other community groups, and workers themselves—recalled the growing awareness 10 ten years ago that many workers faced a choice between going to their jobs sick and losing income or employment. Jim Lazarus, senior vice president of San Francisco’s Chamber of Commerce, acknowledged that despite initial reluctance from the business community, the law has had little impact on employers. In fact, in many cases, it has actually benefited employers, Lazarus said.

Overcoming business opposition and enacting a paid sick days law are major achievements. But as CLASP Executive Director Olivia Golden stressed, implementing and enforcing a law are the hardest steps. Advocates, employers, and government must roll up their sleeves and work together to make paid sick days a reality. That’s one thing on which the attendees could all agree.