Dismantling Barriers to Paid Leave in the South

We're working with lawmakers and partners on the ground in the South to advance legislation restoring local decision-making authority on paid leave.

Paid sick leave and longer-term paid family & medical leave are powerful tools to protect public health, promote economic security, and keep people working. However, in too many states across the country, state law prohibits local governments from setting their own standards on paid leave for private businesses in their communities.

As of March 2022, 23 states have a law in place that prevents local governments from requiring private companies to provide paid leave to their employees. Nearly half of those states are in the South. These laws are part of a larger trend of state interference–also called state preemption–in local democracy that has accelerated in recent years, especially in the South. But community members and elected leaders are pushing back.

In Tennessee, A Better Balance is working with lawmakers and a statewide coalition of advocates to advance legislation that would restore local decision-making authority on paid leave. This bill has received bipartisan support from state lawmakers and backing from a diverse group of local elected officials from urban, suburban, and rural communities. In a letter to state lawmakers in support of the bill, these officials stated that “as local leaders, we each face unique challenges, but we are united in calling for greater autonomy to make decisions that are best for our communities.”

Other local leaders have spoken up about this issue as well. Ellen Smith is a City Councilwoman in Oak Ridge, a mid-sized city near Knoxville that is home to Oak Ridge National Laboratory. Working with A Better Balance and the Local Solutions Support Center, she penned an Op-Ed in the Tennessean explaining the need for local autonomy regarding paid leave. “Paid leave helps reduce the spread of illness, especially during flu season or a COVID-19 surge,” she wrote. “Most of us don’t want our family members or our employees to be exposed to people who know they are sick.”

Tennessee community members are also calling for local decision-making to be restored on this issue. ABB community advocate Erica, a nurse and single mother who lives in Middle Tennessee, spoke during a virtual event about the consequences of not having adequate paid leave when she needed it. In early 2020, her daughter developed COVID-19 symptoms, and Erica needed time off work to care for her. Erica felt she had no choice but to leave the job that  she loved, and instead went to work at another healthcare facility with better paid leave policies. 

Unfortunately, we know that Erica’s story is all too common, as we hear regularly from workers through our free legal helpline who are forced to make impossible choices because they lack access to paid leave. Removing the state prohibition on local paid leave policies is one important way to dismantle barriers and increase access to paid leave in the South.

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