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A ballot question with coattails

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Martha Coakley.Pat Greenhouse/Globe staff/file

It’s no surprise that Republican gubernatorial candidate Charlie Baker wants to take earned sick leave off the table as an issue in the race. The popular ballot question, which allows most workers in Massachusetts to accrue paid sick time, is polling 2-to-1 in favor in at least one survey, better than any other issue — or candidate — this November. Baker opposes the question, while his Democratic rival, Martha Coakley, raises it at nearly every campaign appearance. Indeed, a strong turnout for the ballot initiative could benefit Coakley’s candidacy too.

“Charlie’s opposition to earned sick time shows a fundamental lack of understanding of the difficulties faced by working families, especially working mothers,” Coakley said in August. Back then, Baker said he opposed Question 4 but would work to implement the law if it passed. Earlier this week, however, he offered his own alternative sick-time plan. It would be limited to businesses of 50 workers or more (as opposed to 10 or more workers under Question 4), and it dilutes other provisions in the ballot measure, but it allows him to say he too supports “the idea” of earned sick leave, as his campaign put it, just with a “more effective” version.


Baker’s shift is an effort to get right with — or at least to neutralize — an issue polling strongly among women and independents, two groups he needs to be elected governor. But it is also a backhanded compliment to the coalition that has mobilized to pass the measure. The Yes on 4 campaign includes the expected labor unions, community groups, and religious organizations, but it also has been picking up support from business groups: Last week the measure was endorsed by Partners HealthCare, the largest private employer in the state.

Question 4 would let all employees accrue one hour of sick leave for every 30 hours worked — though it would be unpaid leave in companies with fewer than 10 employees — up to a maximum of 40 hours a year. Workers could use the time to recover from an illness, to care for a sick child, or to keep a doctor’s appointment without fear of lost wages. The proposal would help close one of the many economic equality gaps in Massachusetts: More than half the state’s workers with incomes under $35,000 don’t get any sick leave benefits, but 89 percent of those earning over $65,000 do.


The issue, important to working families in its own right, is also a powerful motivator for the Democratic base. In an off-year election, many traditional voting blocs — the young, minorities, lower-income residents — need an extra incentive to get to the polls. Unmarried women, for example, are among the least likely to vote in non-presidential elections, and yet as the primary caregivers in so many families, they in particular would reap the benefits of a new earned sick leave law.

As a strategic ploy to mobilize otherwise disengaged voters, ballot questions have had mixed results. But that hasn’t stopped organizers of all ideological stripes from trying. Progressive groups have placed measures to increase the minimum wage on ballots in Alaska, Nebraska, and South Dakota this year, hoping to boost Democratic turnout in states with important US Senate races. In Colorado, meanwhile, a ballot measure conferring “personhood” on a fetus has become a flashpoint in the campaign between US Senator Mark Udall and his Republican opponent. In Massachusetts, the earned sick leave campaign seems to be generating more enthusiasm than the candidates topping either party ticket. Still, it’s unclear whether Coakley can ride the popular question’s coattails into office, especially now that the contrast with Baker’s position is not as great.

Ballot questions are blunt instruments and not always the best way to enact complicated public policy. But they are a way to force shape-shifting candidates to take a stand. The good news is that the next governor of Massachusetts will be honor-bound either to enact a crucial new employment benefit or an (admittedly modest) alternative that still gets workers closer to the protection they deserve. The million of Massachusetts workers toiling today without sick leave will make sure of it.


Renée Loth’s column appears regularly in the Globe.