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Brown: Suburban Cook workers next in line for paid sick leave

Cook County Commissioner Bridget Gainer, the lead sponsor, said extending the same sick leave provisions countywide will give peace of mind to hundreds of thousands of additional workers and guarantee that employers operating in multiple locations will be held to one set of rules. | Cook County Board of Commissioners photo

Following in the footsteps of the city, Cook County commissioners are expected to vote Wednesday to require businesses to provide employees with up to five days of paid sick leave each year.

The county ordinance is closely patterned after one approved in June by the City Council over the strenuous objection of business groups.

Commissioner Bridget Gainer, the lead sponsor, said extending the same sick leave provisions countywide will give peace of mind to hundreds of thousands of additional workers and guarantee that employers operating in multiple locations will be held to one set of rules.

Both the city and county ordinances are scheduled to take effect in July 2017.

The Cook County ordinance will apply to private sector employees throughout the county except where a home rule municipality has enacted its own law, which so far is only Chicago, Gainer said.

OPINION

Just as the ordinances mirror each other, so have the debates.

The business community argues requiring paid sick leave is just one more indicator of an unfriendly local regulatory climate for employers that hurts companies located on the border and drives some away.

Advocates like Gainer say it’s an overdue recognition of a changing economy that has left much of the workforce without the basic benefits that many of us take for granted.

“So much of the job growth is in the service industry. A lot of those jobs don’t have those benefits,” Gainer said.

I’m sympathetic to the business competitiveness argument, but more sympathetic to the estimated 400,000 workers in suburban Cook County who don’t have any sick leave protection.

Workers shouldn’t have to choose between taking care of a sick kid in an emergency or keeping their job.

This seems to be the only way to make progressive change in the U.S. these days: by starting locally and allowing an idea to spread. At least five states and 25 cities have enacted paid sick leave in recent years.

Illinois is not one of them, and I wouldn’t expect that to change under Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner.

It would be preferable for the federal government to enact its own law to cover everyone, eliminating the concern about interstate competitiveness.

Gainer said she expects there will be a national paid sick leave requirement if Hillary Clinton becomes president. I’m not sure a Republican Congress would give her that victory, but the time could come.

Under the county ordinance, both full- and part-time private sector employees would accrue one hour of sick time for every 40 hours worked.

Employees can begin using earned sick time six months after their date of hire. They can carry over up to 2.5 days of sick leave to the following year.

“You don’t get this on Day One. You earn it over time,” Gainer emphasized.

The ordinance does not apply to government or railroad workers, nor to unionized construction workers covered by a collective bargaining agreement.

Gainer said the county made some changes to the city ordinance to answer business concerns over how to streamline administrative requirements.

But she admits those changes weren’t enough to remove opposition.

Gainer said county commissioners worked together with Chicago aldermen from the start to make sure that a restaurant, for instance, with locations in Rosemont and the city would face just one set of requirements for its workers.

In that respect, the county ordinance is an “acknowledgement that the economy doesn’t end at the city’s borders.”

Gainer said office workers shouldn’t be the only ones who have this type of benefit, and the economic security that comes with it.

“As a working mother, you often realize the control in your life is out of your hands,” she said.

Working fathers know a little about that, too.