Irene Strohbeen, entrepreneur in residence at Lawrence University speaks during a push at the Wisconsin Capitol for paid leave bills in Oct. 2019. (Photo: Melanie Conklin)
Wanda Lavender, 37, is a manager at a Popeye’s restaurant in Milwaukee. She’s a mother, a grandmother and the breadwinner for her family, making $12 an hour working 40 – 60 hours per week.
“Yesterday my family had to go into self-quarantine,” she says. My son’s teacher tested positive for coronavirus. My son ran a temperature. Now I can’t go into work for about a good two weeks.”
She’s worried about her coworkers, who she describes as “my family,” fearing they also may have to miss work. “As a manager I do have some vacation time. I worry about them … if they have no way to pay their landlords, no way to pay their bills, no way to feed their families.”
She has been a staunch community advocate for paid sick leave and a leader in the Fight for $15 movement to raise the minimum wage.
“It’s shameful it takes a public health crisis to bring attention to this,” adds Lavender. “We need paid sick leave for all workers and we need it yesterday.”
Justin Otto, 32, works backstage at a large, live-music venue in Milwaukee making $11 an hour, a raise from $10 an hour when he began three-and-a-half years ago. He works two side gigs — as a Lyft driver and teaching guitar lessons — to pay his bills. None of these jobs provide health insurance, so he buys Affordable Care Act coverage.
A few days ago, he received an email from the theater about a few shows that were being cancelled. By Monday, the venue was going dark and all of his shifts were cancelled.
“I have no work for the indefinite future,” says Otto. Asked what he’s going to do, he says the news is so recent he does not know. “We are all completely out of work.”
Even before COVID-19 closed down the theater, Otto felt that he could not call in sick to his job without it reflecting badly on his work ethic from management’s perspective. His other option — to work sick around coworkers and patrons — wasn’t one he felt good about either. “Getting paid sick leave for people like me is about being able to stay home sick,” he adds.
Lavender and Otto took part in a call with reporters hosted by Rep. Lisa Subeck (D-Madison) and Rep. Sondy Pope (D-Mt. Horeb), focusing on bills they have authored around the topic of paid sick leave that would be helpful during the current crisis.
Pope has introduced her bill in legislative sessions for several years and never even gotten a public hearing in committee. She describes it as an optional insurance pool paid for by the employee on a voluntary basis.
After recent travel and with colds around her house, Pope says she has quarantined herself, practicing social distancing and working remotely. She counts herself lucky she is able to do that.
“At this point it is abundantly clear that the nation needs paid sick leave,” says Pope. “Had we passed this bill when we first introduced it, Wisconsin would be covered. As it is, we’ve left people hanging out to dry. We have exposed people to what can be a deadly illness.”
Subeck’s bill would overturn a 2011 act of the legislature that overrode local control in Milwaukee, and other communities, prohibiting municipalities from enacting a local sick-leave law. “I’ve been hearing from people in my office this week from a number of lower-paid employees who do not have any access to paid leave,” says Subeck. “For these workers if they have to miss work, they do not get paid, and that means that they cannot pay their bills. It can have devastating consequences.”
Kate Walton, a nurse in emergency medicine at UW Hospital frequently sees patients coming straight to the emergency room from their work shifts at places like restaurants or other public service establishments. “They are forced to choose between their jobs and their health,” Walton says, which is particularly bad in a pandemic.
“Nurses are already stretched thin and changes to staffing are leaving us doing more with less,” says Walton. “We need people to stay home if they are sick.”
“We are at real risk of our health-care system being overwhelmed. The bottom line is that paid sick leave is a necessity for public health, especially right now.”
Subeck says there will be more legislative bills tied to addressing the COVID-19 pandemic crisis in Wisconsin being unveiled this week, but declined to offer details yet. She hopes, given that the Assembly did not adjourn indefinitely, that Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester) would consider bringing representatives back to address this crisis.
“If there was ever a time we should come together and not worry about partisanship and do what’s right, it is now,” says Subeck. “The legislature is able to come back, it just takes the will to do it.”
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