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Legislature set to send bills gutting paid sick time, delaying minimum wage hike, to governor

Tracy Samilton
Michigan Radio

Last week, a handful of volunteers gathered for a phone bank at the Ferndale headquarters of Mothering Justice, a social justice group that aims to influence policies and laws to reflect the needs of mothers.

Kim Hunter begins calling from a list the group previously used to garner support for a paid sick time initiative. He grabs his script when he reaches someone's answering machine.

"Hello, my name is Kim Hunter," he says. "I'm calling with Mothering Justice and I'm calling to urge you to try to protect your right to earned paid sick time."

Hunter and the others are encouraging people to call Governor Rick Snyder and ask him to veto two bills that are likely heading his way.

One would delay a minimum wage hike to $12 an hour until 2030. That bill would also exempt tipped workers, giving them only a 48 cent an hour wage hike by 2030. 

The other bill would nearly gut a law giving workers the right to paid sick time. Exempted would be companies employing fewer than 50 workers - that's most companies in Michigan. Workers would also not qualify for paid sick time until they had worked for a company for a year.  

Phyllis Jacob of Mothering Justice says the issue is personal for her. Her daughter had to quit a job she loved because it didn't offer paid sick days.

What she finds most heartbreaking is how the issue hurts children who get really sick.

"They've told me that they've spent time in the hospital, and that their parents can't visit them, because their parents won't get paid," she said.

The next day, the state Senate passed the bills. It was a surprise to no one. 

The state Legislature had approved the voter initiatives in September specifically to keep them off the ballot.

That appears to be constitutional. Michigan's Constitution allows voter initiatives, but it does not ban the Legislature from adopting them to prevent them getting on the ballot, then immediately modifying the new laws. 

Supporters of the initiatives say they will sue, based upon a 1964 opinion issued by then-Attorney General Frank Kelley, who said the legislature couldn't adopt a law, then modify it in the same session. But legislators say they're confident there's nothing in the Constitution or the law banning the practice.

The day of the Senate vote, Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof said the new laws would have been devastating to businesses.

"We are doing what we believe is the best to keep Michigan's economic engine going," Meekhof said, "Providing the way for employers and employees to make their agreements together."

Outside the capitol, activists and workers protested what was going on inside, calling it anti-democratic. 

Charles Dunne of Burton said this was the first time he became active in a political issue.   

"We can't allow lawmakers to silence our voices," he said.

Business trade groups issued laudatory statements after the vote, but not every business owner was happy.

"And then when I saw the final bill, I was truly shocked, because they really did, they just took out - everything." -Bethany Morton, owner of Morton's Fine Catering in Lansing

Bethany Morton owns a Lansing catering business.  She employs between 30 and 35 people. She gives paid time off, which can be used for sick time, to her full-time workers but not her part-time workers.

Morton says she was worried about the cost of the voter initiatives - likely an extra $15,000 to $20,000 a year for her business. But she was crunching the numbers, figuring out how she would make it work, which might have involved an increase in her prices. 

But despite her reservations, Morton believes everyone should be able to call in sick on occasion and still get paid. What she really wanted from the state Legislature was clarification that employers could challenge workers who misused their sick days.

"And then when I saw the final bill, I was truly shocked, because they really did, they just took out - everything," she said.

So shocked, she's decided to go ahead anyway and offer her part-time workers paid time off, too.

So did the state Legislature go too far? Ken Sikkema says he thinks both sides are abusing the initiative process. Sikkema was a Republican in the state Legislature for 20 years, and is now with Public Sector Consultants.

Sikkema says he doesn't like that large sums of outside money funded the paid sick time and minimum wage campaigns, which he says was not the intent when the initiative process was enshrined in the state Constitution in 1900.

And he says if the voter initiative had become law - and it turned out it had flaws - it would have taken a three-quarters vote to modify it later. 

"That's nearly impossible," he said.

Sikkema understands why people who worked on the initiatives are upset. But, in general, he thinks it's 

"As much as it both sounds good and frankly is good to have a mechanism for voters to bypass the Legislature, people have to recognize once you do that, it's tough to change it." - Ken Sikkema, Public Sector Consultants

better to let lawmakers make the laws.

"As much as it both sounds good and frankly is good to have a mechanism for voters to bypass the Legislature, people have to recognize once you do that, it's tough to change it," he said.

There will be more phone banks and rallies this week. In the end, Sikkema says he'd be surprised if the pro-business Rick Snyder did veto the bills.

Phyllis Jacob of Mothering Justice hopes he's wrong.

"If Mr. Snyder could hear me, Phyllis Jacob, today, I'm asking you to please use your veto power and make this happen. Make your last act a good act," she said.

Supporters of the paid sick time issue are already working on a backup plan. If necessary, they say they'll campaign to get paid sick time on the ballot again in 2020.

Democrat Gretchen Whitmer will be governor then, and thus - it's hoped - more likely to veto bills aiming to keep it off the ballot.

Tracy Samilton covers energy and transportation, including the auto industry and the business response to climate change for Michigan Public. She began her career at Michigan Public as an intern, where she was promptly “bitten by the radio bug,” and never recovered.
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