Rhode Island Will Become Eighth State to Guarantee Paid Sick Leave—and It’s No Coincidence

A number of factors combined into a potent political force resulting in the bill that is now headed to Gov. Gina Raimondo’s desk.

Rhode Island passed a paid family leave program four years ago and is still one of just five states that have one. But it wasn’t until this week that it also decided to guarantee workers the right to short-term paid time off to deal with illnesses or recover from violence.

On Tuesday night, the state legislature passed a bill requiring most companies to let their employees accrue up to five paid sick and safe days a year. It now heads to Gov. Gina Raimondo’s desk, who called for just such a bill in her State of the State address earlier this year.

Her signature will make it the eighth state in the country to guarantee that workers can take paid time off from work if they or a member of their family gets sick. It’ll also be the third state to require both paid sick leave and paid family leave for the arrival of new babies or serious ailments. An estimated 100,000 state residents will get the new relief of a paid sick day starting next summer.

The Rhode Island legislature considered a paid sick leave bill last year, but it didn’t get much traction. That’s when a number of different factors intervened.

One was that the Working Families Party, which had set up in the state in 2016 but didn’t do much work on the bill, decided to support a slate of progressive candidates running for the state legislature in November’s election who were all openly campaigning on paid sick leave. “Our legislature is often more conservative than it looks like on paper,” explained Rachel Flum, executive director of the Economic Progress Institute. While the state is heavily Democratic, many in the legislature tend to lean toward the center.

In the end, the Working Families Party-backed candidates won four Democratic primaries and two general election races. “It gave us tremendous momentum,” said Georgia Hollister Isman, the organization’s state director in Rhode Island.

It wasn’t just because people who supported the policy were now in the legislature, but also because of the message it sent to everyone else. “The more transactional powers in Rhode Island were like, ‘Oh wow, this is an issue,’” Hollister Isman said. And although the state house speaker usually dictates the legislative agenda, the progressive members got together and crafted an economic justice agenda with paid sick leave at the top of the list.

It also took building a broad coalition of advocates to press on the issue, including labor unions, children’s advocates, the AARP, domestic violence organizations, racial equality groups, and women’s rights groups. Survivors of domestic violence shared stories about abusive partners who used a lack of guaranteed paid time off of work to keep them from their jobs. Children’s groups urged the importance of sick leave for working parents so that kids don’t get stuck in school nurses’ offices all day or, worse, have to be brought to the emergency room at night because their parents can’t take them to a doctor during work hours. AARP warned about how many people are now caring for their aging parents.

A new wave of impassioned activists also flowed into the movement, newly energized by Donald Trump’s victory and looking for something concrete to accomplish at the local level. “People are more mobilized to get involved this year after the national election,” Flum said. As one example, Hollister Isman said that the Working Families Party organized a community meeting right after the election and 1,000 people showed up—in a state with a population of just over 1 million people. “People were looking at things they could do at the state and local level to protect working families,” she said. “This is one thing that really activists and ordinary people and organizations working together could … accomplish.”