ABOVE: A scene from the good old days, before "government interference with business operations."
Child labor laws
Above is a partial list of "interferences with business operations" that have occurred in recent American history. Each of these "interferences" were met with an outcry from the business community, who claimed their ruination would result from, for instance, having to pay an adult when they could get a kid to do the job for so much cheaper.
None of the items in the list above occurred spontaneously. They had to be mandated by the government, with business fighting every inch of the way. It is, after all, so darn efficient to pay a bunch of 11 year-olds fifteen cents an hour for a 12 hour day; adults tend to "complain" and - gasp - organize.
Lo and behold, the "interferences" listed above have helped create the greatest country in the world, where workers enjoy a standard of living unmatched in history. Business complained, then adjusted.
This letter writer from today's Milwaukee Journal Sentinel seems unmoved by history, however:
A bad precedent
Citizens determining sick leave benefits for companies doing business in Milwaukee sets a dangerous precedent because it interferes with business operations. What is going to be next? Determining salaries and wages? Where collective bargaining is involved, this takes away the union's right to do collective bargaining.
People who do not work for the companies affected have no business deciding how a business should operate, since they suffer no consequences for the result of their decision.
Initiatives, referendums and recalls should be used sparingly. California uses them routinely, and now it is a fiscal mess.
I especially like his notion that "they suffer no consequences for the result of their decision." Now there's a man who genuinely believes the world ends at his garage door.
Fortunately, today's paper also included an excellent piece from some guys who know a thing or two about history, economic development, and urban theory - - because they are professors of history, economic development and urban studies.
From the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel:
Sick pay is smart economically
As academic researchers on economic development and workplace productivity, we applaud the Milwaukee's new guarantee of paid sick days. Experience and research have shown this to be a sound economic development measure.
Milwaukee has the seventh-highest poverty rate in the nation, a 51% African-American male jobless rate and the largest racial disparities in unemployment and poverty in the country. Forty-three percent of the city's workers earn less than $20,000 a year, and many are among the 122,230 Milwaukeeans (47% of the private work force) who do not have paid sick days.
Everyone agrees Milwaukee needs more family-supporting jobs. Yet employment that lacks paid sick days forces employees to choose between their jobs and caring for their families - this is not a family-supporting job.
The lack of paid sick days hampers economic development in Milwaukee in myriad ways:
- It costs workers job stability; employees who become too ill to work or who take off to care for a sick child or parent are frequently fired.
- It costs companies in stability and productivity, turnover, training and absenteeism and in health care expenses.
- It contributes to Milwaukee's high rates of student absenteeism as older siblings stay home to care for sick younger siblings because their parents are denied that right.
- It creates public health risks, forcing employees with contagious illnesses to put co-workers and customers at risk.
Opponents say requiring paid sick days is a worthy objective but not economically viable. Some have invoked the recession as a reason to oppose it.
But these opponents offer the same discredited methodology and arguments that low-road employers have used historically in opposing child labor laws, minimum wage, workers compensation, clean air regulations and virtually every other labor standard this nation has adopted. Each time the opposition characterized the new labor or community standard as a job killer. And after each standard was established, the business community adapted, the economy grew and our country, its workers and their families were better for it.
In the 1990s, business lobbyists used a similar argument to oppose raising the minimum wage. But after states and even cities raised wages above the national minimum, economists found the Chicken Little scenarios did not occur: Incremental increases did not increase unemployment or cause minimum wage-paying firms to lay people off. Those state and local victories paved the way for advances on the national level.
Facing similar dire warnings, San Francisco enacted a paid sick leave ordinance in 2007. However, despite an economic downturn affecting all counties in the Bay Area, San Francisco maintained a competitive job growth rate that exceeded the average rate of nearby counties.
Of the 20 most competitive economies, only the United States does not guarantee its workers paid sick days.
In a world in which 2 billion people live on less than $2 a day, Milwaukee will not succeed by trying to get poor. The only way Milwaukee can thrive is by getting smart - competing with high-skill, high-productivity, high-wage employees.
Opponents of the sick leave initiative, such as the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce, point out that many of their members already provide paid sick leave. These members should welcome higher standards for all employers, which would protect against unfair competition from businesses without standards and would prevent a destructive race to the bottom.
Providing all Milwaukee workers with paid sick days is the right thing to do. It's also the smart thing to do. Firms that treat their employees humanely benefit from increased commitment, inventiveness and productivity - the keys to competing in an increasingly competitive global economy.Marc Levine is a professor of history, economic development and urban studies at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Michael Rosen is a professor of economics at Milwaukee Area Technical College.