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Battle Over Paid Sick Days in Covid-19 Response Bill Shows What’s Wrong with Campaign Finance System

The absence of adequate paid sick leave benefits has likely worsened the spread of Covid-19.

April 16, 2020

As part of its response to the Covid-19 pandemic, Congress passed legis­la­tion that provides paid sick leave bene­fits to many work­ers who were not previ­ously covered. But even with this new law, the Famil­ies First Coronavirus Response Act, the United States still lags far behind the 179 other coun­tries where perman­ent paid sick leave is the norm. The new law fails to adequately respond to the current public health crisis. Not only are the paid sick leave provi­sions tempor­ary, but the law also includes exemp­tions for busi­nesses with less than 50 or more than 500 employ­ees, leav­ing out millions of Amer­ican work­ers. 

The absence of adequate paid sick leave protec­tions has likely made an already danger­ous pandemic much worse. Paid sick days have been proven to signi­fic­antly lower the trans­mis­sion of infec­tion in work­places, because without them, people are more likely both to go to work while conta­gious and to send their chil­dren to school sick.

To better under­stand the ongo­ing debate over paid sick leave, it is neces­sary to take a closer look at the outsized influ­ence of wealthy donors and special interest groups on who wins elec­tions and what elec­ted offi­cials prior­it­ize once in office. The way campaigns are funded in the United States desper­ately needs reform. The current system does not serve the interests of work­ing Amer­ic­ans, stalling progress on crit­ical policies like paid sick leave.

Early drafts of the Famil­ies First Coronavirus Response Act proposed more expans­ive paid sick leave meas­ures, includ­ing a perman­ent bene­fit. But as news broke of these devel­op­ments, organ­iz­a­tions that repres­ent corpor­ate interests voiced their oppos­i­tion. The U.S. Cham­ber of Commerce, for example, penned a letter caution­ing Congress against push­ing through “a federal, one-size-fits-all, perman­ent leave mandate.”

The Cham­ber of Commerce has been one of the groups that has most aggress­ively exploited federal campaign finance rules, which have become more lax due to court decisions like Citizens United. In 2018, the cham­ber ranked third in dollars spent on federal elec­tions by non-disclos­ing outside spend­ing groups at nearly $11 million — much of it in the form of so-called dark money with the ulti­mate source of spend­ing unknown.

Spend­ing by the cham­ber and other outside groups was crit­ical to winning Repub­lic­ans their Senate major­ity in 2014. The follow­ing year, one newly elec­ted senator, Dan Sulli­van of Alaska, told the group at one of its events, “Without your support . . . I think it’s very doubt­ful I’d be sitting here as your U.S. senator.”

The cham­ber was hardly the only group to lobby against paid sick leave propos­als in the face of the Covid-19 pandemic. The National Feder­a­tion of Inde­pend­ent Busi­ness, an interest group that has bank­rolled campaign ads, sugges­ted it might use floor votes on the bill to influ­ence their legis­lator score­card, a tool the group has previ­ously used to determ­ine campaign contri­bu­tions. Mean­while, repres­ent­at­ives of major energy compan­ies, which have been prolific elec­tion spend­ers, urged the Trump admin­is­tra­tion to oppose “any sweep­ing paid sick leave policy.” Other corpor­ate interests, like McDon­ald’s, which actively contrib­utes to candid­ates on both sides of the aisle, also took advant­age of White House connec­tions to caution against a mandate.

This is not the first time polit­ic­ally active busi­ness groups have wiel­ded their influ­ence in Wash­ing­ton to stall paid sick leave propos­als. In 2007, for instance, when Congress considered legis­la­tion that included paid sick leave among other labor protec­tions, a U.S. Cham­ber of Commerce repres­ent­at­ive threatened an “all-out war” in oppos­i­tion to the policy.

Public health experts recog­nize campaign money as an obstacle to secur­ing paid sick leave legis­la­tion. Jody Heymann, a professor at UCLA’s School of Public Health, iden­ti­fied the U.S. campaign finance system as a root cause of why the United States contin­ues to lag behind the rest of the world on paid sick leave, noting that “[t]he abil­ity [to make] very large corpor­ate contri­bu­tions plays a much more substan­tial role in our elec­tions than in other coun­tries.”

This ongo­ing fight over paid sick leave reflects a polit­ical system that is more respons­ive to big elec­tion spend­ers than to work­ing people. In fact, one study revealed that donors were at least three times more likely to get a meet­ing with senior congres­sional staff than those who described them­selves as “local constitu­ents.” 

Even lawmakers who want to focus on the concerns of their constitu­ents find them­selves far more exposed to the perspect­ives of wealthy donors who control whether they can get elec­ted. As Connecti­cut senator Chris Murphy observed, wealthy donors “have funda­ment­ally differ­ent prob­lems than other people . . . And so you’re hear­ing a lot about prob­lems that bankers have and not a lot of prob­lems that people who work at the mill in Thoma­s­ton, Connecti­cut, have.” With these sorts of pres­sures, it is unsur­pris­ing that when wealthy busi­ness groups take issue with a policy, Wash­ing­ton responds.

Some cities and states have improved the odds for ambi­tious legis­la­tion like paid sick leave by chan­ging how campaigns are funded. In 2011, for example, Connecti­cut passed paid sick leave, but not without a fight from the state’s cham­ber of commerce. The legis­la­tion had been stalled in part due to oppos­i­tion from the then-governor and House speaker, both of whom received campaign contri­bu­tions from the cham­ber. But the imple­ment­a­tion of Connecti­c­ut’s public finan­cing program, in 2008 for legis­lat­ive candid­ates and in 2010 for gubernat­orial candid­ates, changed the state’s polit­ical land­scape. Public finan­cing meant that candid­ates could be “compet­it­ive in a race … without comprom­ising on an issue like paid sick days.” When publicly financed candid­ates won races for governor and the legis­lature, they were able to prior­it­ize paid sick leave legis­la­tion without feel­ing beholden to corpor­ate donors —and Connecti­cut became the first state to sign such a bill into law.

What happened in Connecti­cut shows how demo­cracy reform can help advance policies that impact the  well­being of millions of Amer­ic­ans. Publicly financed elec­tions, for example, allow candid­ates and elec­ted offi­cials to spend less time court­ing big donors and more time focus­ing on their constitu­ents and the issues that matter most to them. Reforms like public finan­cing, stronger contri­bu­tion limits, and increased trans­par­ency already have consid­er­able public support. In fact, those reforms were all included in H.R. 1, or the For the People Act, a bill passed by the House last year.

The fail­ure of the U.S. polit­ical system to respond adequately to the Covid-19 crisis under­scores the import­ance of reform­ing our demo­cracy, includ­ing fixing how elec­tions are funded. The health and safety of millions of Amer­ican work­ers depends on it.