On Friday, June 14, Governor Rick Scott struck a double blow when he signed into law a bill suppressing “living wage” and paid sick-leave policies for Florida workers. While Gov. Scott’s negative opinion of government-sponsored health care and state taxes remain no secret in Florida, what’s less known is that a national group called ALEC, the American Legislative Exchange Council, is behind the effort to place this latest anti-worker bill into the governor’s hands.
ALEC is an organization made up of state legislators and private-sector members who come together to promote corporate friendly legislation. While the group purports to exist for “educational” purposes and claims to do no lobbying, ALEC has come under scrutiny for its “model legislation” — bills crafted to reflect the special interests of ALEC’s corporate members, that then frequently find their way into the statehouses of ALEC’s legislative members. So-called “Stand Your Ground” laws, discriminatory voter ID requirements and anti-union “right to work” laws are just a few of the policies cultivated by ALEC.
Florida House Bill 655 clearly borrows from an ALEC model bill, the “Living Wage Mandate Preemption Act,” which seeks to repeal or prohibit any “living wage” mandates or ordinances set by local city and town councils.
But ALEC manages to exert major ideological influence even beyond its own model legislation. The new Florida bill is one of a number of preemption laws to have cropped up in state after state since 2011. That’s no coincidence. The same year, Wisconsin passed the country’s first anti-paid sick-leave law. According to the Center for Media and Democracy’s Mary Bottari and Brendan Fischer, who have tracked ALEC extensively over the past few years, the Wisconsin bill was distributed to ALEC members during a 2011 conference in New Orleans, where it was the sole point of discussion during a meeting of ALEC’s Labor and Business Regulation Subcommittee. (The ALEC subcommittee was co-chaired at that time by YUM! Brands, Inc., the company that owns Pizza Hut, KFC and Taco Bell.)
It didn’t take long for the bill to make its way south. Florida Representative Steve Precourt — a confirmed ALEC member who, according to Bottari and Fischer, was present at the 2011 New Orleans meeting — introduced his Wisconsin-inspired preemption measure into the House this past March, just as two Florida counties — Miami-Dade and Orange — were considering their own paid sick-leave policies. (Thanks to the governor’s John Hancock on the statewide bill last week, these local considerations are now moot.) According to Senator David Simmons, who sponsored the same bill in the Senate, Precourt’s bill “is critical for the economic integrity of this state. We cannot have a patchwork of local governments impose upon private employers a set of requirements for employee benefits.”
But what about a worker’s integrity? Ring of Fire, Robert F. Kennedy Jr.’s liberal talk-radio program, lambasted the new Florida law. “This bill is another way for companies to attack low-wage workers who, already, aren’t guaranteed the best benefits,” wrote Joshua De Leon on Ring of Fire’s website. “The companies that employ these workers are able to cut labor hours at its [sic] own discretion.” But talk — and talk radio — is cheap when compared to the corporate interests poised to benefit from the new legislation. According to De Leon, companies supporting the bill “think that making paid sick leave unavailable to workers will somehow save them money on labor costs.”
The Florida Chamber of Commerce, Disney World and Darden Restaurants (a former ALEC member) were among the bill’s supporters. The Orlando Sentinel reported that a “host of business leaders” oppose paid sick-leave policies, saying they “would be expensive and ‘kill’ jobs.”
But there is an impressive set of data to suggest otherwise. When San Francisco implemented a paid sick-leave law in 2007, the city experienced a major increase in employment. A study conducted by the Drum Major Institute, a nonprofit progressive think tank, concluded that “San Francisco experienced stronger employment growth than neighboring counties from December 2006 to December 2008 in the industries that are most affected by paid sick leave: retail, leisure and hospitality, and accommodation and food services.” According to the same study: “Employment remains stronger in San Francisco, the first city in the country to implement a paid sick-leave law… than in neighboring counties without such a law.” Perhaps paid sick leave and “economic integrity” aren’t mutually exclusive after all.
The Center for American Progress reached the same conclusion. Without paid sick days, the Center argues, “employees come to work unhealthy, costing employers $160 billion per year due to lower productivity levels.” The study concluded that women and minorities suffer most from such policies, and that workers without access to paid sick leave are more likely to come to work contagious — endangering their coworkers and, by extension, the overall productivity of their company.
Florida’s workers fought hard to prevent the preemption law from passing. Florida State University’s WFSU reported that thousands of petitions from across the state landed on Governor Scott’s desk, carried to the capitol by a group of women pushing baby carriages. But the sight of all those mothers — who at some point will almost certainly be forced to choose between working or staying home with their sick children — did nothing to dissuade the governor’s signature.
The ALEC agenda, it seems, has prevailed once again. ALEC members may be wise to carry some Purell with them next time they’re being waited on at a conference in the great state of Florida.