Sangita Nayak of 9to5 speaks at a petition hand-in, Milwaukee City Hall, June 2008. (Flickr/Dave Moore)

In recent months, more and more cities and states are requiring that employers give paid sick leave to their workers. It’s a broadly popular policy, and a necessary one—one in three American workers has no guarantee of being paid during an illness, including only 25 percent of part-time workers. Aside from creating even more economic vulnerability for workers, this can greatly increase the spread of seasonal flus, which costs businesses $10.4 billion every year, according to the CDC.

Like so many other issues, mandatory paid sick leave has been jammed up in Washington by big-business interests: Obama supported a 2009 Democratic bill in Congress that would have guaranteed workers at least seven paid sick days per year at companies with 15 or more employees. That measure was suffocated by Republicans, and opposed by groups like the National Federation of Independent Business.

So local governments have turned to just passing laws on their own, and made an impressive amount of progress. But a rising tide of conservative pushback legislation might turn the tables on one of the too-rare areas of progressive progress at the state level.

There is already some ground to build on: In 2007, San Francisco began mandating paid sick leave and the District of Columbia adopted a paid sick leave policy in 2008. Seattle began a paid sick leave policy in 2011, and later that year Connecticut passed a measure requiring up to five sick days per year depending on how many hours were worked, making it the first state in the nation to adopt such a policy. Non-union hotel workers in Long Beach, California, won similar benefits via referendum last fall.

Now, the 2013 legislative year has brought the battle to many more major cities. Paid sick leave has become a central issue on the New York City Council, and by extension the looming mayoral race—many liberals see it as a litmus test for council president Christine Quinn. (Gloria Steinem, for example, is withholding her endorsement until she sees what Quinn does.)

Thursday night in Portland, Oregon, the city council scheduled a vote on a paid sick leave policy, and Philadelphia’s city council is holding hearings this week as well. (Philadelphia is trying to expand an existing law paid sick leave law.)

At the state level, Maryland and Massachusetts are both considering bills, as is Vermont (which would also guarantee paid sick leave if a relative or loved one is ill), and Washington State.

As proponents of paid sick leave make headway at the local level, business interests are pushing back—using an interesting strategy of pushing legislation through statehouses that pre-empts any local sick-leave ordinances. In other words, the state-level bills would make it illegal for cities or towns to pass sick-leave bills, and would negate any on the books. (This is a tactic also used by gun-rights legislators; for example, in Colorado, the state legislature barred cities from passing any gun-control measures stricter than existing state law.)

Earlier this month, a Democratic member of the state legislature in Washington and five of his Republican colleagues proposed a bill that would negate Seattle’s paid sick leave law, which passed the city council 8-1. The proposed legislation says:

The state of Washington hereby occupies and pre-empts the entire field regarding paid sick leave and paid safe leave regulation for private employers within the boundaries of the state. Local laws and ordinances that require or regulate paid sick leave or paid safe leave in excess of standards adopted by the state shall not be enacted and are pre-empted and unenforceable, regardless of the nature of the code, charter, or home rule status of such city, code city, town, or county.

In Florida, where there was a battle to get paid sick leave on the ballot in Orlando this past fall, a state senator has introduced a similar bill that “preemp[s] regulation of family or 7 medical leave benefits to the state.”

The state House in Mississippi already passed a pre-emption bill this year, which reads:

An act to prohibit a county, board of supervisors of a county, municipality or governing authority of a municipality from establishing a mandatory, minimum living wage rate, minimum number of vacation or sick days, that would regulate how a private employer pays its employees; to provide that the legislature finds that these prohibitions are necessary to ensure an economic climate conducive to new business development and job growth in the state of Mississippi;

A “statewide uniformity” bill has also been introduced in the Michigan legislature.

The proponents of such legislation make basic arguments about normalizing economic policy across the state, but it’s a little hard to argue. If a city wants to mandate paid sick leave, why not? If one accepts the argument it will chase business from the city, they would be likely to go to a neighboring municipality so it can serve the same customer base. So what’s the difference to the state?

Local organizers see it rather as a coordinated business campaign. Stephanie Porta, director of Organize Now in Florida, has been battling to get paid sick leave on the ballot in Orlando, where pushback from major corporations like Disney, Universal Studios and many major hotel chains has been immense. “All of their top priority legislative issues this year…is to pre-empt sick time,” Porta said. “It seems like it’s very much organized from a national level.”

It’s hard to say whether the legislation is nationally coordinated. It is certain, as Pat Caldwell reported in great detail this week in The American Prospect, that at the state level, conservative and often business-friendly think tanks are far outpacing progressive counterparts. It could just be that “good” ideas to block paid sick leave are circulating in conservative circles.

If the pre-emption legislation is coordinated nationally, one would immediately think of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). But it’s hard to pinpoint if they’re actually involved at all—and they deny it entirely.

ALEC has focused on this issue in the past, that much we know. The Center for Media and Democracy obtained ALEC meeting minutes in 2011 that showed members were quite interested in blocking municipal paid sick leave, after Scott Walker backed a pre-emption bill in Wisconsin that year:

Paid family medical leave” was the only topic of discussion by the Labor and Business Regulation Subcommittee of the Commerce, Insurance and Economic Development Task Force, according to the meeting minutes.

Meeting attendees were given complete copies of Wisconsin’s 2011 Senate Bill 23 (now Wisconsin Act 16), as a model for state override. They were also handed a target list and map of state and local paid sick leave policies prepared by ALEC member, the National Restaurant Association. In Wisconsin, the Wisconsin Restaurant Association lobbied for SB 23 to repeal the sick leave ordinance, as did the the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce (MMAC), the local branch of the the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, an ALEC member. The effect of the repeal will be more sick workers at work, making others ill, in order to save or increase profits by corporations.

Indeed, a review of the state-level legislation in Florida, Washington, Mississippi and Michigan that appeared in 2013 shows that at least one sponsor—and in many cases, multiple sponsors—are members of ALEC.

But several sponsors of pre-emption bills, including the lead sponsor of the Washington legislation, are not members. It stands to reason that conservative lawmakers who oppose paid sick leave laws would incidentally be members of ALEC. In addition, the legislative language is not the same across states, as has often been the case with ALEC-led efforts. And ALEC explicitly denied involvement to The Nation.

“The American Legislative Exchange Council has no model policy on paid or unpaid sick leave, and we are not engaged in any educational activities around sick leave in any state,” said Bill Meierling, senior director of ALEC’s public affairs. “I understand that at some point a member offered an academic presentation about sick leave standards, but that was the extent of Council engagement.”

In any case, watch state legislatures this year. There are sure to be intense battles over paid sick leave—both enacting it for the entire state, and preventing everyone in the state from enjoying that privilege, even if their city has passed it.

As the fight for paid sick leave rolls on, employers are pushing for shady “wellness” schemes. Read Steve Early’s analysis.