Last fall, almost 70 percent of Milwaukee voters approved an ordinance that would guarantee workers seven paid sick days a year. Last Friday, as reported in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Judge Thomas Cooper of the Milwaukee County Circuit Court ruled the ordinance invalid and unconstitutional. Though he rejected the claims of the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce that mandatory paid sick leave was unconstitutional, he came to a disturbing conclusion about the rights of domestic violence survivors. In summarizing the judge’s findings, labor and employment attorney Daniel J. Finerty (of Milwaukee law firm Godfrey and Kahn) paraphrased the judge’s views on granting sick leave for people dealing with issues of domestic or sexual violence:
The objectives of the Ordinance in providing domestic violence leave were not rationally related to the overall objectives of the Ordinance, were without any rational basis in the legislative history and, as a result, render the Ordinance unconstitutional.
The judge also ruled that the ordinance had been passed unconstitutionally because the language on the ballot did not mention that paid sick days would include days spent dealing with domestic violence. This second argument may have some merit, but the idea that “providing domestic violence leave [is] not rationally related to the overall objectives of the Ordinance” is at best misguided and at worst offensive.
Paid sick leave is predicated on the idea that all workers have the right to take basic steps to protect their own and their family members’ health, without losing their jobs. Domestic violence constitutes just as much of a threat to the health and safety of all its victims as a serious illness does. To ignore, diminish, or brush aside this fact is an insult to every woman who lives in justified fear of what her husband might do next. When a woman knows that she needs to seek shelter, or go to court, in order to prevent her abuser from harming her or her children, she should not have to gamble her job against her life. There is absolutely no reason she should not be allowed to use a paid sick day in such a situation.
For too long, victims of domestic violence have been blamed for their plight, held responsible for their abusers’ actions, and seen as weak. Judge Cooper’s ruling perpetuates and encourages this offensive view, and it should not be allowed to stand as precedent.