Preemption: A Growing, Calculated Threat to Democracy

by | Apr 5, 2013 | Paid Sick Days

From Vermont and New York City to Washington state, momentum and support for paid sick days policies are high. More than a dozen campaigns are working across the country to advance paid sick days and, last month, we celebrated victories in Portland and Philadelphia when city councils in those cities approved paid sick days measures. But with the great success of paid sick days and other pro-worker policies has come a disturbing trend: State-level legislation designed to prevent cities and counties from passing their own paid sick days standards and other workplace protections.

This “preemption” strategy first appeared in 2011 in Wisconsin, where the state legislature passed and Governor Scott Walker signed legislation to effectively void a Milwaukee paid sick days measure that passed in 2008 with the approval of nearly 70 percent of voters. It was an outrageous abridgement of local democracy. And it was just the beginning.

There is growing evidence that anti-worker groups such as the National Restaurant Association and the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) are supporting these preemption bills. In 2012, the strategy surfaced again in Louisiana, where state legislators passed a more expansive preemption law than Wisconsin’s. The Louisiana law prevents local authorities from passing any basic workplace protections.

Now, preemption bills are being considered in even more states:

  • A bill in Mississippi passed quickly through the state House and Senate and has been signed by the governor. Now law, it preempts both paid sick days and minimum wage standards, to the detriment of Mississippi workers.
  • In Florida, where opponents kept the citizens of Orange County from voting on a local paid sick days measure last fall, state legislators are attempting to prohibit all localities from passing their own standards. This far-reaching legislation threatens to preempt not only paid sick days ordinances, but also to void local policies that affect living wage, domestic violence leave and other standards. The Florida Coalition for Local Control is fighting back.
  • In Michigan, preemption legislation was introduced with the backing of the Michigan Restaurant Association and the Michigan Chamber of Commerce. Advocates on the ground, along with allies in the legislature, are fighting it, armed with the fact that 60 percent of Michigan voters support paid sick days standards.
  • Legislators in Arizona and Indiana have also introduced broad preemption bills that are in danger of passing. In Arizona, the preemption of local wage and benefit measures by the state legislature is actually illegal according to a 2006 ballot measure and the state constitution. So, if the bill passes, the state – and taxpayers – could face a costly lawsuit. Indiana’s bill is also controversial: In addition to usurping local control, it may overturn existing municipal non-discrimination ordinances.
  • In Washington state, legislators have introduced a preemption bill in response to the paid sick days ordinance that Seattle passed in 2011. Local advocates have rightly identified it as an attempt to undermine the democratic process and silence the will of the people. In the meantime, Washington is considering a statewide paid sick days bill.

Most legislators who are promoting preemption bills claim workplace standards should not be enacted at the local level, but none have offered state-level solutions at a time when millions of workers and their families suffer without the basic paid sick days protection they need. This is irresponsible and one more reason that state legislators should see preemption efforts for what they are: misguided and harmful efforts to undermine democracy.

Local paid sick days advocates are increasingly aware of the threat posed by preemption bills, and they are redoubling their efforts. State preemption bills make an even stronger case for a national standard like the one proposed in the Healthy Families Act, which was introduced in Congress last month.

No matter where you live or work, no one should have to choose between job and family because he or she cannot earn paid sick days. Workers and families know it. Business leaders know it. And lawmakers increasingly know it. Preemption efforts may continue, but they will not stop the push to increase access to a standard that all workers so urgently need.