Within a few weeks, Seattle City Council member Nick Licata intends to introduce legislation that would require every business in Seattle to provide paid sick leave for its workers—one hour of accrued leave for every 30 hours worked. It's modeled on a four-year-old San Francisco ordinance that applies to all workers, even temporary and part-time employees, which many say has been successful. But the as-yet-unseen Seattle proposal already has an army of business owners gearing up for a fight. And while that fight brews among the obvious players—large trade organizations, business groups, and labor unions—another fight is dividing people who are usually allies: local restaurant owners.
"My employees don't want paid sick days; they want health insurance and retirement," says Dave Meinert, co-owner of Capitol Hill's Big Mario's and owner of the 5 Point Cafe downtown. Meinert's argument is a common refrain—offering paid sick leave will cut into the other benefits employers could offer. He's not alone. Successful restaurateurs such as Linda Derschang (owner of Linda's Tavern, Smith, Oddfellows Cafe, and others) and John Howie (owner of the Seastar restaurants) are against the plan, as is the Greater Seattle Chamber of Commerce. Washington Restaurant Association president Anthony Anton says the measure could cost restaurants up to $175,000 a year. All of them have been lobbying the city council to kill the proposal before Licata even introduces it.
"If the city mandates this benefit, I can't offer my employees the benefits they want," Meinert continues. "If my employee costs go up, some other cost must go down."
"I love you, but you're wrong," counters Molly Neitzel, owner of Molly Moon's Homemade Ice Cream, which has one of its shops around the corner from Meinert's pizza joint. Neitzel offers her 65 employees full health coverage and accrued paid time off. She says the cost of replacing an employee—who's unhappy at a job or lured away by an employer offering better benefits—is far higher than offering paid time off. "When you offer good benefits to your employees, they value their jobs," she says. "They stick around."
Licata's proposal, which is still in draft form, would affect businesses differently. Employees working for businesses with fewer than 10 people could accrue only five days of paid sick leave per year; employees in larger businesses could earn up to nine days. (Regardless, in San Francisco, employees use only an average of two to three sick days per year.)
Meinert, Derschang, and Neitzel all say they offer employee benefits in some form or another, be it health insurance, free meals, above-minimum-wage pay, or paid time off. The fight is about whether this proposal will actually do what restaurateurs fear—cost them money.
But Licata says skyrocketing costs is the same straw man raised against child labor laws and the implementation of a minimum wage. "Every time we make an adjustment in working conditions, there is an argument that there's an impact in profits and the way businesses are run," Licata says. "There can be no better way of measuring how well our workforce is treated than by assuring they don't have to come to work sick."
In other words, do you want someone who has the flu making your sandwich?
A 2010 study of San Francisco's ordinance appears to support Licata's conclusion: Restaurant owners have nothing to fear. In the study, six out of seven of the 1,194 workers polled by the Institute for Women's Policy Research reported that their employer didn't reduce raises, bonuses, or other benefits in order to give them paid sick time. That's because, on the whole, the measure didn't cost San Francisco business owners much money. Seventy percent of the 727 business owners polled said the ordinance didn't affect their profitability (14.2 percent reported that their profitability suffered because of the measure).
"Overall, San Francisco has seen no negative impact on jobs," explains Marilyn Watkins, policy director of the Economic Opportunity Institute, which lobbied Licata to draft the Seattle proposal. "In fact, they're doing better than surrounding cities and counties after the implementation of their ordinance."
Still, even some employees who would benefit are unconvinced. "I understand the intention, and I appreciate it," says Melanie Schweitzer, bar manager at King's Hardware (owned by Derschang). "But it won't do me much good. If I have the choice to take paid time off or switch shifts with somebody and not lose my tips, that's a no-brainer—I'll switch shifts."
Other waiters and baristas I spoke with—people who wouldn't speak on the record because their bosses wouldn't approve—see Licata's proposal as a safety net for emergency situations when a shift switch isn't possible.
Still, restaurant owners insist prices will rise, quality will suffer, and businesses will close. They also argue that this is a grocery-union fight cloaked as a policy debate and emphasize the importance of shift swapping. "If my employees miss work and they're making only minimum wage, they'd lose 50 to 75 percent of their pay," Meinert says. "This won't help us, but it might hurt us."