The Associated Press March 24, 2011, 1:02PM ET

Court clears way for Milwaukee sick-leave policy

A Wisconsin Court of Appeals cleared the way Thursday for a Milwaukee sick-leave policy that was approved by voters in 2008 but held up while opposing sides took their cases to court.

The 3-0 ruling overturned a lower court's decision that said the ballot question didn't contain enough information about the ordinance. The appeals court decided that the question did indeed comply with necessary requirements and did not violate state statutes or other prohibitions.

The law allows Milwaukee workers at private companies to accrue one hour of paid sick leave for every 30 hours worked. Employees could take up to nine days of sick leave each calendar year. Businesses with nine or fewer employees could cap the maximum paid sick leave at five days per year.

Voters passed the measure overwhelmingly in 2008, 68 percent to 32 percent. But the law didn't go into effect because a judge granted an injunction -- first temporary and later made permanent -- in response to an opponent's argument that the ordinance was improperly enacted.

The Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce had criticized the way the measure was worded on the ballot. MMAC also argued that the measure was pre-empted by state and federal laws, impaired existing contracts and exercised police powers invalidly. While a circuit court judge agreed with the arguments in 2009, the appeals court reversed the judge on every count and ordered the injunction lifted.

MMAC did not immediately return a message seeking comment.

The main group pushing for the law was 9to5, National Association of Working Women, which advocates for women's issues at the workplace. Spokeswoman Dana Schultz called the victory "huge" and said the law is long overdue.

"We're just thrilled that after voters voted this legislation into law in 2008, that the courts also agree after all this time," she told The Associated Press.

9to5 says the law will allow 120,000 Milwaukee families who don't currently have paid sick days to recover from illness or take care of sick family members without fear of losing their jobs or a paycheck.

A sticking point upon which the appeals were based was the way the ballot question was worded. It asked voters whether the city should adopt an ordinance requiring employers to provide paid sick leave to employees. MMAC said the question failed to include more details about the proposed measure, including that sick-leave protection would be extended to situations involving domestic or sexual abuse.

The appeals court decided the language was clear enough that voters could make an informed decision.

MMAC could appeal the decision to the state Supreme Court, although history suggests that step might not lead to resolution.

The same case came before the state's high court last fall. Three justices voted to uphold the ordinance, three voted to strike it down, and Justice Annette Ziegler stepped aside from the case because of a conflict. The deadlock sent the case back to an appeals court.

If it goes to the state Supreme Court again and the same outcome doesn't change, the ordinance would stand as law.

However, state lawmakers could end up trumping the city's measure. The state Senate already has passed a bill that would require all towns and cities to have uniform sick-leave policies, and the Assembly is considering the bill.

Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, a Democrat, has come out against the city's sick-leave law. He has said he'd support it if it were applied universally at the federal level, but that he thinks implementing it only in Milwaukee could drive jobs elsewhere. He said Thursday he still opposes the law as long as it applies only to Milwaukee.

Two other U.S. cities have similar measures -- San Francisco and Washington, D.C.

A report from the nonpartisan Drum Major Institute for Public Policy in New York found that San Francisco actually saw job growth after its law was enacted in 2007. The report said the city's employment rose 3.5 percent after the law went into effect, while employment in five surrounding counties dropped 3.4 percent over the same period.

"San Francisco's situation shows there aren't detrimental effects to this, 9to5 lead lawyer Barbara Zack Quindel said. "People in Milwaukee knew what they were doing when they passed this."

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Online:

The Court of Appeals' ruling can be found at: http://1.usa.gov/fXCaVo

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Dinesh Ramde can be reached at dramde(at)ap.org.


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