Who's Getting Snotty About Sick Leave?
Industry Lobbies Are Trying Four Tactics to Undermine a Bill Designed to Help Seattle Workers
On September 12, the Seattle City Council passed a paid sick leave ordinance, thankfully with none of the amendments outlined below (except for a watered-down version of amendment one). Hurrah!
Keep this in mind as you bite into a juicy burger at your favorite digs this week: An estimated 40 percent of Seattle's workforce can't get a paid day off of work when they're sick.
For restaurant workers, this means serving food while they also cough, sniffle, rub their noses... you get the picture. And according to the Economic Opportunity Institute, a research and policy center based in Seattle, one in four grocery-store employees—the people fondling your produce—report coming to work sick because they don't have paid sick days.
But that may soon change.
On Monday, September 12, the Seattle City Council is slated to vote on legislation that would require all Seattle employers to offer up to 72 hours of annual paid sick leave to the 190,000 full-time workers in the city who currently lack that benefit. Not only useful when they're ill, a worker could use the paid days off to care for a family member or deal with domestic violence, sexual assault, or stalking.
"Everybody has agreed that this is a fundamental need, that this is a norm that should be provided," declared Council Member Sally Clark at an August 10 meeting of the council's Housing, Human Services, Health & Culture Committee. The committee then approved a robust version—with a handful of concessions to business lobbies—of the paid sick days legislation.
But don't expect easy passage when the full council convenes on Monday.
"I'm not sure we have exactly the right proposal before us," council president Richard Conlin said in August.
Taking advantage of the council's trepidation, lobbies for downtown businesses, large employers, and the hospitality industry are putting the screws on. With days left before the vote, city hall sources tell The Stranger that lobbies are shopping around various amendments that would weaken the bill. It remains unclear which council members will introduce the amendments (council members were in the midst of a two-week vacation at press time), but all are crafted to kneecap a sick-leave law—similar to one that's already proven cost-effective in San Francisco—in the interest of saving certain industries money while watering down benefits for their employees.
An Exemption for Large Companies
Who wants a big loophole? The big boys, naturally.
One proposal in the wings would excuse companies with over 1,000 employees from complying with the law (think Nordstrom, Whole Foods, QFC). As some of these companies have pointed out, they already give their employees paid days off work. According to the Washington State Employment Security Department, 75 percent of large companies in the state offer some form of paid leave. But what these companies don't proffer is that the time off isn't designated for sick leave (it could be used for vacation), and this measure would require providing more paid time off than many of them provide now.
For example, let's consider Nordstrom, a member of the Downtown Seattle Association, which opposes the sick-leave bill. Under the current ordinance, Nordstrom would need to provide up to 72 hours—or nine sick days—per year. The retail giant already offers its full-time employees 104 hours of paid time off—but that includes vacation, holiday, and sick leave all lumped together. The ordinance would require Nordstrom to add another 34.7 hours of paid leave for its workers and mandate that half of the total 138.7 hours (or roughly 69 hours—eight and a half days) be reserved for sick leave.
By not specifically distinguishing accrued paid sick leave from vacation time, employees are more likely to work sick, in order to save their paid time off for vacations and holidays. So you may still have sick workers on the job.
Singling Out Union Workers
This measure would allow a company that employs unionized workers to exempt its businesses from the sick-leave requirements, on the grounds that the ordinance doesn't comply with current union contracts. If adopted by the council, dozens of major grocery stores in Seattle wouldn't extend sick-leave benefits to their employees (who are represented by the United Food and Commercial Workers 21). But being a union member doesn't mean those workers don't need sick-leave coverage. Currently, Safeway employees' sick leave doesn't kick in until their third day of illness, according to their union contract. "I can't afford to take those two days off," says Tracie Chapman, a single mom who's worked for a Safeway store in Seattle for 13 years. Chapman's daughter has a chronic heart condition that lands her in the hospital on a regular basis. "My manager has flat out told me that I need to choose between my job and my daughter," Chapman says. "But what am I supposed to do? Not be there for my infant? She has no one else."
As the bill now stands, employees could begin accruing sick leave as soon as they're hired, and then they could use those benefits after six months. But grocers and other lobbies want to postpone that date. During two July meetings convened by the city council (meetings that included the Manufacturing Industrial Council, Northwest Grocery Association, Washington Restaurant Association, and Greater Seattle Chamber of Commerce, among others), a majority of stakeholders asked the council to delay the date that employees could begin accumulating paid time off, for up to 180 days. That's crazy. If an employee has been working for six months, he or she has already earned a chance to stay home sick for a day or two without being docked pay or getting fired.
Exempting Construction and Manufacturing Workers
This amendment would excuse the construction and manufacturing industries from the ordinance. "It's certainly not wildly popular to go to bat for major employers," began Clark on August 10 (before swinging that bat hard). "How does this work in the culture of the construction industry?" Clark asked, expressing concern about so-called enforceability issues with contracts. Yes, construction and manufacturing jobs are cyclical, and jobs are not always based within city limits. And, sure, that makes accruing and tracking paid sick time for Seattle's 65,000 construction and manufacturing employees more complicated. But is it fair to argue that some workers are entitled to get sick while others—the ones operating heavy machinery and power tools—aren't?
While businesses with the council's ear are clearly motivated to protect their bottom line, their claims that paying for sick leave would cause economic harm appear unfounded.
A 2010 report conducted by the Institute for Women's Policy Research studying the aftereffects of paid-sick-leave laws in San Francisco indicates that employers' profitability didn't suffer and employees were unlikely to abuse their paid sick days. Seventy percent of the 727 business owners polled said the ordinance didn't affect their profitability; typically, workers used only three paid sick days per year (and one quarter of workers used none).
Besides, council members have already made numerous concessions in the draft of the bill that's before them. For example: They've exempted businesses with fewer than five employees, excluded work-study students, and stipulated that employees must wait six months before they can use the sick days.
If passed, Seattle would be the fourth city in the country to pass a law like this. In San Francisco, "businesses are doing better than surrounding cities and counties after the implementation of their ordinance," assures Marilyn Watkins, policy director of the Economic Opportunity Institute. "It promotes healthy small businesses."