In Nebraska, senators refused to even debate paid sick leave. Now advocates want to give voters a direct say.
A push to enact a similar law had failed twice in the Nebraska legislature and repeatedly since 2016 in the U.S. Congress, despite polls suggesting widespread popularity. To Edmisten, those defeats reflected a sickness afflicting the country’s representative democracy.
Today, Congress is so divided and ideologically polarized that it struggles to execute its most basic responsibilities. State legislatures suffer a different malady. They’re often so dominated by a single party that the majority can push through its agenda with little regard for what most voters might actually prefer.
In the two dozen states that allow citizen-sponsored referendums, Democrats and Republicans alike are turning to the ballot box to make law and in many cases overrule their elected officials — a process known as “direct democracy.” The initiatives, fueled by voter frustration and wealthy funders, have rolled across the country in waves in recent decades. Although the overall number of initiatives has declined in the past several years, the policies at stake have reshaped Americans’ everyday lives: Citizens have used ballot measures to raise the minimum wage, legalize marijuana, expand Medicaid, bring back the death penalty and require voters to show ID on Election Day.
Some of the most contentious initiatives have focused on abortion. In red and purple states, such as Kansas, Kentucky, Montana and Michigan, voters have by sizable margins either rejected new limits on abortion or backed measures guaranteeing greater access. Last week, Ohio became the latest.
In Nebraska, where the governor in May signed a 12-week ban, abortion rights advocates have said they plan to put the issue on the ballot in 2024.
Almost no one views direct democracy as an ideal solution to the dire state of the nation’s politics. The process is slow, expensive and sometimes confusing to voters. It’s also subject to manipulation by dark money groups posing as grass-roots activists. And it raises questions about whether “pure democracy,” in the words of at least one conservative unhappy with the Ohio abortion result, is even desirable.
But its backers — like Edmisten, a 28-year-old single mother of four — see it as a check on a system that has stopped listening to people like them. Since graduating high school a decade ago, she had worked at fast food restaurants, nursing homes and a day care, all without paid sick leave. She began canvassing this summer when she was hired as a full-time organizer.
To put paid sick leave on the ballot in Nebraska, the measure’s supporters needed about 90,000 registered voters — 7 percent of the state’s electorate — to sign their petition. They also needed signatures from 5 percent of registered voters from at least 38 of Nebraska’s 93 counties.
The latter requirement had brought Edmisten to Crete (population 7,179), the largest city in Saline County.
At first glance, the county didn’t seem like the sort of place that would support a policy associated with some of the country’s most liberal politicians. In 2020, Donald Trump had defeated Joe Biden in Saline by nearly 30 percentage points. But there were other statistics that suggested Edmisten might find a favorable reception.
A year earlier, a little more than half of the county’s residents had voted to boost Nebraska’s minimum wage from $9-an-hour to $15, part of a successful statewide push.
Edmisten was learning how to scan a neighborhood for other clues. She noticed a children’s bicycle lay in the front lawn of one house. “When there’s kids’ stuff, I feel like they’re more likely to sign,” she said. People with children, she reasoned, understood the need for paid sick leave.
She approached a ranch-style home with vinyl siding and a “Future Farmers of America” sign in the front yard and knocked. Edmisten usually tried to forge some sort of personal connection with the people on the other side of the door. Sometimes that meant sharing stories of the times when she had stayed home to care for a sick child and then couldn’t afford food or her rent. Often it meant listening to their struggles.
The door opened and the smell of beans, rice and tortillas flooded onto the small house’s front steps. “Hi, I’m Sierra. I’m working to put paid sick leave on the ballot for all Nebraskans,” she said in a rush. “Are you interested in signing or learning more?”
A man who didn’t speak English stared blankly at Edmisten, who called over a Spanish-speaking colleague. Minutes later, the home’s sole registered voter emerged from the kitchen and signed the petition — Edmisten’s first signature of the night.
Edmisten’s journey to Crete began in early 2021 when State Sen. Tony Vargas introduced a bill in the Nebraska legislature that would have required companies to offer their workers at least 40 hours of paid sick leave per year.
A similar bill had failed to pass a year earlier. Then came the coronavirus pandemic, which exposed the gaps and inequities in the U.S. health care system. Vargas, a Democrat who represents a working class, majority Hispanic district in Omaha, rose to make the case for his bill late in the day on May 10, 2021.
He cited a study by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, which found that about half of Nebraska’s full and part-time workers didn’t have access to a “single paid sick day.”
He spoke about the 11 states that had already passed a similar paid sick leave measure and the benefits the new law could yield for employers — improved morale, less turnover, a healthier workforce. (Three additional states have mandated sick leave since then.) And he suggested to his fellow senators that voters would hold them accountable if they failed to act. Although reliable Nebraska-specific surveys are not publicly available, multiple polls over the last decade have found that 80 percent or more of Americans favor legislation requiring employers to offer paid sick leave to full-time workers.
“We were elected by the everyday person, the everyday worker,” warned Vargas. “They elected us to try to act on issues that affect them in their every day.”
Every bill that reaches the floor of the Nebraska legislature is eligible for three rounds of debate, each of which ends with a vote. The process is set up to incentivize senators to offer amendments and seek consensus. In the case of his paid sick leave bill, Vargas noticed that the largely Republican opposition was choosing not to debate.
Privately, some Republicans and pro-business lobbyists had shared their concerns. They worried that small, rural businesses, which were already struggling to compete with the likes of Walmart and Amazon, would be driven into bankruptcy by the mandate. Others suggested that Nebraska’s tight labor market gave workers plenty of leverage to demand sick leave from their bosses without government meddling.
Inside the legislative chamber, though, no one was making these arguments. At times, Vargas seemed to wonder if the opposition, which had the votes to defeat the measure, was even listening.
“I can tell we’re tired, and I can tell people aren’t engaged, which is beyond frustrating,” Vargas told his fellow lawmakers.
With each round of discussion, the backers of the measure grew angrier at their opponents’ silence. State Sen. Megan Hunt, a Democrat, read an email from a constituent who said she had to show up for her shift on the same day that she had been raped. “I had no choice,” the email stated. “I couldn’t find anyone to work for me and I was told I’d be fired if I missed any more days.”
When she had finished reading, Hunt chastised her colleagues for their “cowardly” silence.
By the third round of debate, Vargas was offering unilateral concessions in an effort to draw additional support. First, he proposed exempting business with fewer than 50 employees from requiring sick leave — a move that had been suggested privately by the Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce. Then he offered to change the bill again so that it only guaranteed five days of leave without pay.
More silence from opponents.
In his final speech in support of the bill, Vargas talked about the disproportionate toll that the coronavirus had taken on Black and Latino workers, who were less likely than the overall population to have sick leave.
“This is a policy matter,” he said, “but it’s also, I think, a moral matter.”
Then, after three hours of one-sided debate, he conceded defeat. “I know some of you don’t like this bill or even the nature of the bill,” he added. “I just wish we actually engaged in that dialogue.” The final vote was 20-17 against the measure.
For years, Nebraska’s legislature had seemed insulated from some of the problems afflicting national and most state-level politics. Nebraska is the only state in the nation with a unicameral legislature, meaning it only has one lawmaking body with 49 senators. Senate candidates are chosen through a single primary that includes Republicans, Democrats and independents — a process that in the past tended to reward moderates.
Recently, though, Republican and Democratic lawmakers said the legislature has grown more polarized and less civil. Both sides blame the usual culprits: social media that promoted the most extreme views; the pernicious influence of dark money and out-of-state campaign donations; an urban-rural divide that seemed increasingly unbridgeable.
Earlier this year, conservative lawmakers introduced a bill that aimed to ban gender-affirming care to minors by limiting their access to puberty-blocking drugs, hormone therapy and surgery. Liberal senators who opposed the measure responded by filibustering nearly every bill that came up during the legislative session.
“If you want to inflict pain upon our children, I am going to inflict pain upon this body,” vowed State Sen. Machaela Cavanaugh, the Democrat who led the effort. It lasted nearly three months.
Conservatives accused Cavanaugh and her colleagues of hijacking the legislative session to advance a personal agenda. More moderate and liberal members of the body criticized Republicans for prioritizing divisive cultural issues. The bill, which was amended to include a 12-week abortion ban, passed in May.
“I often ask myself what happened to focusing on what Nebraskans are feeling right now — the high cost of living, homeownership, the ability to pay for child care, tax relief?” Vargas asked in a recent interview. “These used to be the main things that people worked on.”
For Edmisten, ballot initiatives were a way of fighting for the things that mattered most to her and her family.
Like many of her fellow canvassers in Crete, Edmisten was new to the ballot initiative process and mistrustful of politics. Before she was hired over the summer as an organizer, she had been working as an $11-an-hour day care worker. The job didn’t come with any leave. She had last voted in 2016, when she backed Sen. Bernie Sanders in her state’s Democratic caucus and then cast a protest ballot for the Green Party candidate in the general election.
“I had kind of lost faith in politics altogether,” Edmisten said. “It felt like my voice doesn’t matter. So what’s the point?”
Edmisten’s path into a different kind of democracy began with an application to join a program that trained food stamp recipients to talk with lawmakers about their experiences with hunger. The effort was being run by Nebraska Appleseed, a nonprofit group that focused on issues such as child welfare, poverty and health care. Edmisten spoke with her congressman about the food aid programs in the farm bill and her family’s struggle with hunger.
She broke down in tears testifying before a legislative committee in support of a bill that sought to make free school meals more widely accessible. The bill didn’t pass, but the experience made Edmisten feel as though people were listening to her, she said.
Earlier this summer, Nebraska Appleseed officials asked her if she wanted to sign on as a co-sponsor of the paid sick leave ballot initiative.
Becky Gould, the group’s executive director, had built a coalition of nonprofit groups that had been using ballot initiatives to enact laws that had failed repeatedly in the state legislature. Their first win came in 2018 when Nebraskans voted to offer expanded Medicaid coverage to low-income families — a six-time loser in the statehouse. In the years that followed, the group championed successful ballot measures to cap interest rates on payday lending (2020) and raise Nebraska’s minimum wage (2022). The initiatives passed with 82 percent and 59 percent of the vote, respectively.
“Nebraska is not on everyone’s quick radar when thinking about where they want to invest in change making,” Gould said. “We now have a bit of a track record that we can lift up and say, ‘These things are really possible here.’”
Some state senators have complained that out-of-state donors have too much influence over the ballot initiative process. Almost all of the paid sick leave campaign’s $1.7 million war chest has come from the Sixteen Thirty Fund, a Washington, D.C.-based group focused on equity, climate change and racial justice. Ballot initiative organizers said they planned to use some of that money to hire a signature gathering firm.
Other lawmakers worried that advocates were rushing to get measures onto the ballot, rather than methodically building support for their preferred policy in the legislature.
“There’s a lot more of an emotional drive to get things passed,” said State Sen. Ben Hansen, a Republican from Blair, Neb. “We either believe in a representative government or we don’t. I mean, that’s the basis of where our democracy comes from.”
So far, the business groups that worked to defeat sick leave in the legislature haven’t mobilized against the ballot initiative, citing the outside money backing the campaign, the policy’s popularity with voters and the high cost of mounting a statewide push to stop it.
At the paid sick leave campaign’s kickoff in July, Edmisten described what it was like to take care of her four children and pay her bills without any paid time off. Her ex-husband had spent much of the last decade working in fast food, as a janitor and on loading docks, also without sick leave. In the spring, their 8-year-old son was hospitalized for 10 days to treat a chronic lung condition.
Edmisten and her ex had tried to put off the treatments until they received their tax refunds. But their son’s condition worsened and his doctor told them that he needed immediate care. “I was terrified of losing that amount of pay,” Edmisten said at the kickoff. “I didn’t know how I was going to pay my rent, utilities or buy groceries for my family. I could feel the stress in my body.” Her tax refund, she said, arrived a few days into her son’s hospital stay.
Shortly after her speech, Edmisten was hired as a full-time organizer by the Nebraska Civic Engagement Table, one of the groups backing the paid sick leave measure. Her new bosses asked her to focus her initial organizing efforts on rural Nebraska and her hometown of Hastings, a city of about 25,000 that’s about a two-hour drive from Omaha. For the first time in her life, Edmisten had sick leave.
In early August, Leah Ratzlaff, who owns a gas station convenience store in Hastings, sent Edmisten a text message, asking her to forward her a copy of the ballot initiative.
The two women had met several years earlier at a support group for mothers with preschool age children. Edmisten had arrived late. Her children were crying and her diaper bag was overflowing. Ratzlaff rushed over to comfort her kids and reassure Edmisten that they had all experienced similar moments of chaos.
The two kept in touch. Ratzlaff, 43, cheered Edmisten on when she spoke to the state legislature about food insecurity. “Such a big need in this area,” she had texted. “Thank you for being part of the solution.”
Edmisten knew that having the support of Ratzlaff and her husband could help bring around other small business owners in Hastings. Ratzlaff, though, had questions.
The proposed law required businesses with more than 20 workers to provide their employees with seven sick days per year. Smaller businesses would be required to provide five days off. Employees would earn one hour of sick time for every 30 hours on the job.
Ratzlaff’s store employs about 30 people — many of whom are retirees or high school students who work 14 hours or less a week. The new law could make it more costly to employ those part-timers, Ratzlaff told her friend.
The law also didn’t specify how much notice workers needed to provide when calling in sick. A big business, like Walmart, could absorb last-minute absences. Smaller stores, which were mainstays across much of rural Nebraska, faced a tougher challenge.
“If my cashier doesn’t show up, my doors have to shut until I find someone to get there,” Ratzlaff said.
Ratzlaff already offered her workers paid vacation time. She told Edmisten that she wasn’t opposed to providing additional sick leave if ballot initiative passed. “I absolutely admire what you are doing and all of your hard work,” she texted. “Just really trying to see how this all works.”
“You have definitely given me a lot to think about,” Edmisten replied.
Ratzlaff expected that the boost to Nebraska’s minimum wage, which was going to hit $15 an hour in 2026, and the potential new sick leave legislation would force her to increase prices or shrink her profit margins. The three-year-old store, which she had built with her husband, was her family’s sole source of income.
“We’ll have to figure it out,” she said of the proposed changes. “Closing our doors isn’t an option.”
In late October, Edmisten was canvassing in Crete. To reach the necessary 5 percent threshold for the city and surrounding Saline County, the campaign needed to collect about 390 signatures.
The process was often slow and lonely. An entire day at a festival or farmer’s market might yield only a dozen or so signatures, Edmisten said.
On this night, Edmisten was one of about three dozen people who had joined up after work to canvass the town.
An app on Edmisten’s phone highlighted the homes of residents who had signed earlier ballot initiatives to expand Medicaid or raise the minimum wage. But she seemed to have more luck just catching people who were out for a walk or in their front yards.
Edmisten was canvassing with Gould, the Appleseed director, when the two spotted a carpenter repairing the rotting steps of a Queen Anne-style mansion, built in the late 1880s by one of Crete’s founders. “Destined to be the finest building in the city,” the local newspaper had said of the home in 1888 when Crete was still new and full of promise. Today about 20 percent of Crete’s residents live below the federal poverty line, twice the statewide rate. The 18-room mansion sat empty; its owners had long ago moved to California, the carpenter said. Gould grabbed his signature.
Across the street, Katherine Garland, 51, was telling Edmisten how the day-care center where she worked had recently shut down.
“We had no sick leave — nothing,” she said. The day care had been licensed to take as many as 70 children. When it closed, the parents who worked at the nearby Smithfield Foods and Nestlé Purina plants had to scramble to find alternatives. Garland was watching a few of the children from the shuttered school at her home. She added her signature to the petition.
The conversations Edmisten had with voters in Crete rarely touched on politics in Lincoln or Washington. Instead people talked about their lives. A lab technician who signed told Edmisten that she had recently gone to work with strep throat because she couldn’t afford to take off a day from work.
A railroad worker who declined to sign told Gould that he had never received paid sick leave and didn’t think others needed it. “I just believe in work,” he said.
An 87-year-old woman who was blowing honey locust leaves from her driveway talked about her work as a bank teller, a cashier and seamstress in a bra factory. When she got sick or her sewing machine malfunctioned, she lost pay. She had long voted Republican and said she feared for the country’s future under President Biden. But she didn’t see sick leave as a partisan issue.
“They should’ve had this years ago,” she said.
As Edmisten walked from house to house, she thought about the times in her life when she or her ex-husband badly needed a sick day to take care of themselves or their children but couldn’t afford to take it. Both had lost jobs after calling in sick. In 2018, Edmisten said she was feeling ill and struggling to finish her shift at a nursing home when she suffered a miscarriage. Her boss, she said, had called her in the hospital to press her to return to work. “And so I dealt with that,” she said.
She empathized with her friend Ratzlaff’s concerns about her store and acknowledged that the paid sick leave bill “wasn’t the perfect answer.” But she still believed the law was necessary. “We can at least stop some of the hurt somewhere,” she said.
The streets were now dark, so the canvassers climbed into their cars and drove back to Lincoln. In two hours of door knocking, Edmisten and Gould had collected 13 signatures. The total haul for the group was 97, which meant that they still had about 290 signatures more to go to reach the 5 percent threshold in Saline County. They had eight months to make up the difference.
Scott Clement and Clare Ence Morse contributed to this report.
This story is part of Imperfect Union, a series examining the ways Americans feel unrepresented by a political system struggling with a collision of forces both old and new.
Editing by Griff Witte. Copy editing by Jeremy Hester. Project editing by KC Schaper. Photo editing by Christine T. Nguyen. Design editing by Betty Chavarria. Data editing by Anu Narayanswamy. Additional editing by Philip Rucker.
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