Response: May/June 2020 Issue

Advocating for Paid Sick Leave

United Methodist Women members in Virginia partner with 
Virginia Interfaith Center for Public Policy to call on lawmakers 
to support paid leave and a living wage for all.

Advocating for Paid Sick Leave
Karen McElfish, l, social action coordinator for the Virginia Conference UMW, with Carol Barton, UMW executive for community action.

Editor’s note: In the current global health crisis, the need for paid sick leave is increasingly urgent. Support initiatives in your state to protect vulnerable workers, and, as always, watch unitedmethodist
women.org for ways to help.

Five thousand Americans die every year as a result of food contagion. There are 76 million illnesses due to food handling annually, of which 325,000 require hospitalization. Part of this problem occurs because half of food workers go to work sick at some time—because they won’t get paid if they don’t.

In Virginia alone, 1.2 million workers do not receive paid sick days or time off. This represents 41 percent of private sector workers. Within this group, low-wage workers (food-service, personal health care, and child-care workers) are the least likely to receive paid sick days. More than 80 percent of food industry workers and 75 percent of child-care workers have no paid sick days. Over half of all common-cold cases can be traced back to sick food-service workers who were forced to choose between working while they are ill and losing pay or their job.

Responding to this, United Methodist Women and Virginia Interfaith Center for Public Policy (VICPP) have formed a partnership to mobilize forces to create legislation to protect all workers and public citizens by requiring employers to pay workers for sick days. United Methodist Women and VICPP work in coordination to bring their resources in an organized effort for the Virginia State Legislature to require that employees be paid for sick days.

The problem is not unique to Virginia. Thirty-eight states do not require paid sick days.

“United Methodist Women’s role as an organizer is to partner with other organizations,” explained Carol Barton, United Methodist Women executive for Community Action. “In this case, VICPP has given us the perfect chance to plug into an existent program.”

There are multiple areas of cooperation between United Methodist Women and VICPP. Both have been involved in outreach to United Methodist Women members. VICPP staff provided logistical support to United Methodist Women’s lobbying efforts on United Methodist Day at the General Assembly. VICPP Executive Director Kim Bobo is a United Methodist Women member. And Virginia Conference Social Action Coordinator Dr. Karen McElfish, a pediatrician, serves on the VICPP board of directors.

The two organizations joined forces for United Methodist Day at the General Assembly in January to present the case to state legislators. Ninety-seven United Methodist Women members from throughout the state traveled to the state capital, Richmond, to support the paid sick days legislation. Bishop Sharma Lewis joined them. Twelve of the 14 districts of the Virginia Conference United Methodist Women were represented among groups that met with 50 legislators and their staff.

VICPP staff sets the appointments for United Methodist Women members for United Methodist Day at the General Assembly. During the two annual legislative sessions, which are six weeks and eight weeks long, VICPP also distributes a weekly newsletter to its entire mailing list of 25,000.

Together in action

To build this action, United Methodist Women and VICPP did outreach to United Methodist Women members throughout the state, providing information and inviting them to join the activity. The outreach sessions were organized according to legislative district. In addition to building the paid sick days movement, the preparatory outreach sessions provide the opportunity for United Methodist Women members from different units to work 
together.

Bobo is often a keynote speaker at United Methodist Women meetings.

VICPP offers Advocacy 101 classes to United Methodist Women members throughout the state. These classes teach United Methodist Women members how to identify their state legislators and instructs them in letter writing.

The outreach occurs in various venues. In addition to the classes, there were two focus groups at the United Methodist Women Virginia Conference Annual Meeting that were attended by 100 United Methodist Women members. McElfish also presented sessions at Mission u and the spiritual life retreat.

“In these sessions I found that the United Methodist Women members are very knowledgeable regarding poverty and the need for living wage. I was very impressed by the questions that they asked,” said McElfish. “It is United Methodist Women’s role to provide them the tools that they need to successfully advocate.”

Delores Reid, social action chair for the Harrisonburg District, pointed to changing laws as the best way to get the people’s needs met.

“Sometimes people don’t have a voice for themselves,” Reid continued. “We give them a voice. It goes back to our mission of advocacy. It’s what we’re all about as United Methodist Women.”

United Methodist Women and VICPP share the ties between education and action.

“Half of our job is education,” explained Bobo, “and we are very active during the legislative session. Both United Methodist Women and VICPP know how to get bills passed.”

Barton expanded on this interconnectedness.

“We’re educating our members to get the word out,” she said. “We’ve been listening to our members regarding how inequality affects their lives and reacting to them with our activities. There is a lot to do. The country is experiencing a level of inequality that is second to only the Great Depression. So we’re preparing our members to go to their state legislatures to change the laws to reduce the inequality.”

A living wage for all

The ties between the legislative action and the day-to-day lives of the disempowered are very direct. To make the relation between law and people’s lives clearer, United Methodist Women’s focus on economic inequality was narrowed to the Living Wage Campaign.

The living wage is viewed as the pay rate that allows workers to receive a basic but decent standard of living.

It is the single component that can most affect economic inequality. But the living wage represents more than the hourly rate that one is paid. The key factor is the income that one actually receives. When anticipated income does not arrive, due to a worker’s illness, it wreaks havoc on the person’s financial stability.

When a worker takes 3.5 unpaid sick days, the average family loses a month’s worth of groceries.

“Many people focus on helping the poor where they are, but we need to do social action to help the people to get out of that position,” said Arlington District Social Action Coordinator Cheryl Moore. “Legislation can be a form of social action. Within this, paid sick days are very important. Low-wage workers can’t afford to take days off. These are people who are living on an economic tightrope. The loss of income can knock them off that tightrope.”

The Rev. Barbara D. Lewis, pastor at Concord United Methodist Church in Stony Creek, Virginia, had been employed at a specialty-food retail chain in the 1990s for seven years. As part of her job, she handled food. That ended the day she fell ill with strep throat. With a 103-degree temperature, she was unable to drive to work. When she called her boss to say that she was sick, she was told she would be fired if she didn’t come to work. She was fired.

Her pain was twofold: from the economic hardship created by the loss of income and also from feeling dis-
respected.

The legislative approach can appear to be very abstract and isolated. But its impact reaches through to the day-to-day lives of the people, and United Methodist Women members are making change. 

­­­Richard Lord is a photojournalist based in Ivy, Virginia, and New York City and a frequent contributor to response.­­

Posted or updated: 5/5/2020 12:00:00 AM