By Ana Sofía Peláez
Article originally written for the Miami Herald in May 20, 2020.
When you’re living through unprecedented times, it’s tempting to go back to where it all could have been different, right the wrongs and find a better path forward. Miami-Dade County commissioners were given that opportunity recently when commissioner and mayoral candidate Daniella Levine Cava proposed legislation that would require private county contractors to extend seven days of paid sick leave to their employees.
Rather than engage in the ongoing public-health crisis and need to get people back to work safely, commissioners Esteban “Steve” Bovo and Rebeca Sosa seemed more concerned with Cold war politicking than implementing safety measures that could slow the spread of the coronavirus and even offset the next deadly outbreak.
Levine Cava proposed similar legislation in mid-February along with paid family leave, but the vote was deferred. A few short, but endless, months of quarantine later and with our economy in shambles, Levine Cava made her case again. An auditor’s report showed a marginal hike in contract costs could be offset by reduced absenteeism and increased productivity. Most important, in light of COVID-19, it would reduce the risk of public-facing employees such as security guards and maintenance staff reporting to work sick or being exposed to sick colleagues. The irony that they were participating in a meeting held virtually because of social-distancing safety measures seemed lost on the committee that voted down the legislation.
Bovo compared paid sick leave to policies implemented in Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela. In fact, it’s already required of federal contractors and offered to full-time Miami-Dade County employees. Eleven states have adopted similar mandatory paid sick-leave policies without devolving into communist dystopias.
Sosa likened paid sick leave to the government mandates that caused her to flee Cuba, even after acknowledging that the government could and should set guidelines for the private sector in circumstances like a hurricane or virus. This inconsistency speaks to the poverty of the argument and how reflexive it has become for local politicians to fall back on red-baiting when faced with any policy they don’t agree with.
But paid sick leave isn’t communism, it’s common sense, and their constituents know the difference. A recent Change Research online poll of Miami-Dade County voters shows support of paid sick leave is at 82 percent across racial, ethnic and partisan lines. These results may soon hit closer to home for Bovo, who is also running for county mayor.
While we’ve become used to this rhetoric being deployed to neutralize and censor thoughtful debate, COVID-19 lays bare the danger of injecting Cold War platitudes into a discussion about public health standards.
It also underestimates the very communities they pretend to represent — many of whom fled dictatorships because their work wasn’t valued, their well-being wasn’t considered and their voices weren’t heard. As the daughter of Cuban refugees, I am tired of our community’s pain and trauma being used as a political trump card, played to prop up a weak argument or — worse — deny basic services or relief to those experiencing economic hardship. We need elected leaders who will guide us toward recovery and regeneration, not resentment and regression.
When the paid sick leave was first brought to the commission in February, Bovo compared it to a free hand-out and was quoted as saying, “News flash: Somebody has to pay for this.”
With Florida’s Department of Health reporting more than 40,000 coronavirus cases and Miami-Dade County projecting an almost $300 million loss in tax revenue, it would appear we’re all paying for it. For Bovo and Sosa and the commissioners who failed to support this legislation in its second and final go-around, it was a lesson unlearned.
If a global pandemic does not impress upon local leaders the need to have basic health safeguards in place for essential workers serving the public in a time of crisis, what will?
Ana Sofía Peláez is an award-winning culture writer. She is the co-founder of the Miami Freedom Project.