Rhode Island’s General Assembly voted 59 to 11 to pass a bill on Tuesday guaranteeing sick days to over 100,000 workers, joining the state Senate, which passed the legislation along a 25 to seven vote. The bill now goes to Gov. Gina Raimondo, who is expected to sign it.
The new law will guarantee workers at large firms five earned sick days by 2020; workers at businesses with 17 or fewer employees will be allowed to have three unpaid sick days a year. Overall, around 90 percent of the state’s workforce will have access to paid sick days.
The passage of the law is the culmination of a yearlong effort by the Rhode Island Earned Sick Days Campaign, made up of more than a dozen groups, including the Service Employees International Union, Planned Parenthood of Southern New England, and the Working Families Party, an organization founded in New York that has since spread its issue activism and electoral work to many other states.
Over the last year of elections, WFP helped lay the groundwork for the passage of paid sick days by backing candidates supporting the issue in 10 legislative races. In seven of those races, its candidates won.
Part of WFP’s challenge is how it chooses to engage in electoral politics. In New York, there is a fusion party system, in which groups other than the main parties can develop their own ballot line based on endorsements, which is the system WFP has used to create an independent voice in New York politics. Under that scenario, the same candidate can run on both the Democratic line and the WFP line, meaning people can vote for the WFP candidate without the fear of contributing to the victory of the opposing Republican.
In New York and other states, WFP mostly backs Democrats but sometimes runs candidates under its own party line (in 2017, a WFP candidate defeated a Democrat to take a seat in the Connecticut House).
In the case of Rhode Island, all of WFP’s candidates ran as Democrats supporting paid leave policies; four challenged incumbent conservative Democrats and defeated them, some in close races.
Georgia Hollister Isman, WFP’s Rhode Island state director, told The Intercept that the organization’s victories helped move the legislature on a host of progressive issues.
“The sum total of more progressive Democrats winning primaries against more conservative Democrats I think got the legislature to pay attention,” she said. “Both in general to ‘What is this agitation around progressive causes?’ and also more specifically to Working Families Party.”
For instance, Jason Knight won his primary by 190 votes — overcoming smears by 20-year Democratic incumbent Jan Malik, who tried to publicly shame Knight for once representing sex offenders as a defense attorney.
Jeanine Calkin’s race was even closer. She was a Bernie Sanders delegate in 2016 who was inspired to enter electoral politics and challenged William Walaska, a state senator who had been in the body since 1995. She defeated him by just 75 votes.
Even Rhode Island Majority Leader John DeSimone was defeated in his own primary, coming in 21 votes behind public school teacher Marcia Ranglin-Vassell.
The campaign for the law faced some opposition from business groups and political nonprofits sympathetic to employers. The Rhode Island Center for Freedom and Prosperity ran radio ads featuring a stoner who laughs about utilizing “one of them new paid sick days.”
David Segal, a former Rhode Island state representative who helped found WFP’s state chapter and now works at Demand Progress, credited the win to organizing momentum that emerged from last year’s elections.
“Bernie handily won Rhode Island, and a combination of progressive organizing momentum and concern about Trump has led to a heightened organizing climate here,” he said. “Groups like WFP and SEIU helped harness that energy and transform it into the sick days victory and were buoyed by a wave of progressive state legislative candidates who won Democratic primaries here last year.”
Rhode Island will join eight states and the District of Columbia that already have laws granting paid sick leave for some employees.