Sick leave benefits move closer to council action

  • FAIRNESS. A rally was held last week to raise awareness of a local movement to have employers provide sick leave for workers. (Photo by Steve Dunkelberger)

Noshing on hotdogs and brisket, sick-leave supporters gathered in a Sixth Avenue parking lot last week to promote awareness of their effort to require business owners to provide paid sick leave for their workers.

Healthy Tacoma is a federation of human rights and minority groups, labor unions, business owners and workers that are working to build support for a proposal the group hopes to bring to Tacoma City Council for consideration. Council members Anders Ibsen and Ryan Mello already back the concept, although the details of “Paid Sick and Safe Time” are being worked out.

“We are going to try to push it through when it is ready,” said Healthy Tacoma organizer Sandy Restrepo.

The working concept now is to have businesses with more than 10 employees provide an hour of paid sick leave for every 30 hours worked with a cap of 40 hours of sick leave. Larger companies would have higher caps, topping off at 108 hours for firms with more than 250 employees. The sick leave could be used for personal health, preventative care, family sickness or for time to deal with domestic violence legal filings. Similar plans have been approved in Seattle, Portland, New York City, Washington, DC and the entire state of Connecticut.

About 40,000 workers around Tacoma, mostly in hospitality jobs in restaurants or hotels, have no sick leave benefits. That‘s two out of every five workers in the city, which is the national average.

A report on San Francisco’s ordinance concluded that few businesses saw profits drop from the added cost of providing paid sick leave and that most workers didn’t end up using all the sick leave they had accrued. And about 60 percent of Tacoma businesses, Restrepo said, are already offering some sort of sick leave policy.

“An overwhelming amount of businesses are already doing the right thing,” she said.

One of those is Makini Howell, who runs Plum Bistro and Quickie Too. She is also a backer of the effort and says the businesses don’t have to fear about the added costs paid sick leave would bring since productivity and employee retention makes up for any “lost time.”

“It doesn’t cripple you,” she said. “It really doesn’t cost all that much.”

Business groups and restaurant associations are opposing the plan because they feel the new requirement would hurt businesses with added cost and regulations in an economic environment that is already tough for businesses to turn profits.

Tacoma Chamber CEO Tom Prerson points out that state and federal laws protect workers from being fired for being fired for asking for sick leave as proponents contend happens all the time.

“You already have protection in place,” he said. “So it comes down to what do we really need to fix?”

A look at Seattle’s sick leave law, shows that dishwashers and table bussers are much more likely to use their sick leave than servers, so controlling the spread of illnesses from worker to patron hasn’t changed. Small businesses often find themselves shuffling duties around, so an occasional sick day just adds to that mix, Prerson said. What the paid leave movement is really about is a national effort against large corporations.

“These people are targeting one or two businesses,” he said, noting that McDonalds and WalMart are often mentioned. “This is not about Tacoma.”

McDonalds restaurants are actually mostly franchises that are locally owned and WalMart’s leave policy rivals that of most small businesses.

“There are certainly people struggling out there,” Prerson said. “But I don’t know what else we can do.”

Existing policies and flexible options in the plan:

  • Employers may provide more generous leave, and may provide leave as paid time of, available for both sick leave and vacation or personal time.

  • Employers may “front load” leave rather than accruing.

  • Employers may require a waiting period of up to 90 days before new employees are entitled to use paid sick time.

  • New small business owners have a 1-year grace period to implement a Sick Time policy.

  • Employees may voluntarily trade shifts rather than use paid sick time.

  • Employers may establish policies and procedures for notice and communication about employee absences, but may not discipline, discharge, demote, or threaten employees who use sick leave for an authorized purpose.


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