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What Makes a World Class City?

Alderman Emma Mitts of Chicago this week defended her proposed city ordinance lifting the ban on serving alcohol at topless dance clubs in the city by saying, “It makes Chicago more of a world class city.”  That may not be the headline she wants for her next aldermanic election run, but this is Chicago where politics are strange, so perhaps she’s designing bumper stickers with this slogan superimposed on racy silhouettes.  There may be reasons for lifting the ban, including combatting the problem of criminal activity taking place on the sidewalks and in alleys outside dance clubs where patrons apparently do their drinking.  I’m not sure, however, that adding alcohol to sexual exploitation really lifts us toward world class ranking.

What may actually move Chicago in that direction is a less heralded report, also issued this week, from the Working Families Task Force, a mayor appointed group of city officials, business and union leaders, academics, and non-profit activists that has recommended a framework for expanding access to sick leave and family medical leave across the city: http://www.cityofchicago.org/content/dam/city/depts/mayor/Press%20Room/Press%20Releases/2016/April/Working-Families-Task-Force-Final-Report.pdf.  (To be fair to Alderman Mitts, she also served on this Task Force.)

The United States is the only industrialized country without mandated paid family and medical leave.  At least 145 countries currently ensure access to paid sick days, with 127 providing a full week or more annually through government programs and employer mandates.  In other words, paid sick time is part of what it means to be a “world class” city.

Chicago, however, like much of the rest of the United States, fails to meet this standard.  As many as 42% of private sector workers in the city, or roughly 460,000 people, do not have access to paid sick days according to the Task Force.  Most are predominantly low wage workers; more than three quarters of workers earning less than $20,000 per year lack access to paid sick days.  Compare that to the 80% level of access for workers earning more than $65,000 annually.  This means that every day in Chicago thousands of workers are arriving at their workplace sick, and often contagious.  Thousands of children are going to school sick because their parents can’t afford to stay home from work to care for them.  As a result, the personal challenges families face also become public health hazards, particularly when we remember that a large number of low wage workers are employed in the restaurant and food service industry.

Predictably, the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce and the Illinois Retail Merchants Association have offered a dissenting voice, publishing “The Business Perspective on the Effects of Another Mandate on Employers,”  http://irma.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/04/Dissent-Report.pdf.  As the title suggests, they resent what they see as one more governmental intervention in the conduct of their business, predict that this will further diminish business opportunities in the city, and argue that rather than offering supports to workers we should be investing in training and education so workers could have higher paying jobs.  This, of course, assumes that those better jobs with benefits would be available and that low paying jobs without benefits would somehow disappear.  That is a convenient, but unlikely assumption.

A colleague on the Board of Arise Chicago, a faith-based non-profit focused on the needs of low wage workers, speaks for many out of her experience working in retail for ten years with no paid sick days:  “They always told us that if we needed time off we had to give two weeks notice, which was sometimes illogical or impossible. No one plans when they or their child will be sick. Employers must not forget that we are human beings, we are parents, who want to be home with our kids when they get sick just like they do. I really hope for a paid sick days ordinance. It will benefit working parents and really, all workers.”

Providing sick days to all employees makes good business sense; happy and healthy employees who are not stressed are more productive, more stable, more reliable.  It makes good public health sense by keeping sick and contagious workers at home, away from fellow employees, restaurant kitchens, and the like.  And it makes moral sense, for it reflects a city’s regard for the dignity of its workers and the needs of their families.

There are many factors that make for a world class city – a world class natural setting, world class educational and cultural institutions, world class public education, a world class business environment, world class sports teams, world class governmental institutions, etc.  Chicago scores high on some of these, abysmally low on others.  I don’t think legal drinking at topless clubs is going to bump us up any rankings.  But if world class means a quality of life that allows families to thrive, then mandated sick days for all regardless of income ought to be on the list.  Let’s hope Alderman Mitts adds to her legislative agenda the implementation of the Mayor’s Task Force’s report, moving the city toward the top rather than simply encouraging some to take it off.

             John H. Thomas

April 7, 2016


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