Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, one of the major issues we are facing is the balance of continuing economic activity while still protecting people's health. This is clear as Louisiana moves away from the stay-at-home order, with Governor John Bel Edwards loosening restrictions on restaurants, churches, and other public spaces in effect this Friday, May 15.
However, on the eve of such reopenings, the Louisiana legislature is considering the issue of paid sick leave and the local government's role in setting standards to protect workers and public health. Today, on Thursday, May 14, the Louisiana House of Representatives Municipal Committee will hear House Bill 797, sponsored by Rep. Royce Duplessis (D) and Rep Joseph Stagni (R), to repeal the state ban on local control of labor laws. This would enable local governments to set their own standards for paid sick leave policies.
The Louisiana law in question, passed in 1997 and expanded in 2012, bans local governments from setting their own standards for pay and employee benefits. This means that as of now, the local government cannot require private sector employers to provide sick leave.
As stay-at-home orders have called for everyone whose work is unessential to stay home, those who are deemed essential remain in the workforce. With their jobs as grocery store and restaurant workers, airport workers, energy sector employees, or delivery people, essential workers are necessary for the functioning of society, but their livelihood is not currently protected during this time of crisis.
Paid sick leave has been shown to reduce the spread of respiratory infections by encouraging sick workers to remain home, rather than working even when exhibiting symptoms. But with employers and private companies in control of employee benefits and sick leave, many essential workers are currently unable to stay home even if they are ill. These individuals face the difficult dilemma of prioritizing their health and protecting those around them or missing out on an income source that may be critical to the livelihood of both themselves and their families.
The Unleash Local coalition, including more than 30 community, faith, and labor organizations, has backed the bill, with the declaration that paid sick leave allows essential workers to stay home when sick, thus making us all safer. With the urgent coronavirus crisis persisting as an issue, local control of paid sick leave has found much support. Already, a bipartisan group of approximately 40 members of the Louisiana House of Representatives has formed and expressed support for the bill, and there is expected to be a similar level of support in the State Senate.
Other local leaders, including Baton Rouge Mayor-President Broome, Alexandria Mayor Hall, New Orleans Mayor Cantrell, and Shreveport Mayor Perkins, have also voiced support for the legislation. In a video posted on Wednesday to Twitter, East Baton Rouge Metro Councilperson Chauna Banks asserted her total support of HB 797, stating, "In order for our state to reopen safely, workers need to be able to stay home when they are ill, and their council needs the power to respond in the way that is in the best interest of the communities they serve."
The original law banning local control of employee benefits had the support of corporate lobbyist groups, who had also blocked the passage of a state minimum wage and other worker protections in legislation. Because of this, local lawmakers have no ability to make a change from the federal minimum wage of $7.25, even as the cost of living has increased over the last decade. In seeking a repeal to this bill, the Louisiana legislature would be taking on a larger role in protecting at-risk essential workers and securing general health and safety in this time of crisis.