Why I voted for paid sick leave for Seattle workers

Over the weekend I zipped down to visit my mom who is suffering through pneumonia. I didn’t have to miss work, but I also didn’t stress about whether I might miss work. Last year I had pneumonia and missed almost two weeks of work. I stressed about what I wasn’t getting done and who I was inconveniencing, but I didn’t stress about having flexibility and a paycheck. Today in my office I’m super-sensitive about staff showing up sick. I don’t want to get sick and I don’t want them working themselves sicker.

I haven’t always been this lucky.  In my past jobs — as barista, catering dishwasher/host/bartender, and freelance writer — when I got sick, I had to decide between working while I was sick or losing my carefully budgeted income. It’s estimated that approximately 145,000 people out of Seattle’s 465,000-person workforce don’t have access to paid sick leave. Not surprisingly, the numbers of people without paid sick leave skew toward lower income women and people of color.

Today I voted to require paid sick leave as of September 1, 2012, for workplaces with more than four paid staff. In simple terms, workers must earn one hour of sick time for every 40 hours worked. Depending upon whether your workplace is small, medium or large, you’ll build up to 5, 7 or 9 total days possible. This is a big step, one that not many other cities have taken yet. It’s admittedly a hard step in this economy, but I believe sick leave should be fundamental much the same way we speak now of minimum wage and worker safety protections.

My colleagues and I worked with advocates and opponents over the past several months to craft an approach that would cover workers in need and be relatively simple to understand. The paid sick leave conversation has been a very emotional debate, and it’s revolved around core values – deeply held beliefs about responsibility and compassion. Talking with business-owners and workers, we had some very charged and difficult conversations. I like to think we at Council took a number of steps to rectify a number of the concerns. Here’s what we did:

  • We delayed the legislation’s effective date to allow employers time to prepare and adjust.
  • We streamlined the original legislation, reducing the number of business categories and standardizing the accrual rate, to help employers more easily navigate.
  • For big companies (250 employees or more) using a Paid Time Off pool, the accrual will be a slightly faster one hour for every 30 hours worked up to a minimum of 13.5 days of total PTO.
  • We are requiring the City Auditor to conduct a 1-year check-in so we can evaluate the program’s successes and areas for improvement.  We’re one of the first cities in the nation to implement a paid sick leave program.  We’ll undoubtedly run into unexpected hiccups/abusers of the system. We’ll have a mechanism in place to measure and cope.

During the debates on paid sick leave I spoke with many hourly workers without enough of a safety night should they or a loved one fall sick. Some opponents have argued that requiring paid sick time will force businesses to pull back on other benefits or wage increases. That may be true. A study of San Francisco’s implementation indicated it likely has happened there. It may happen here. I still believe that the public health value and the worker support value is high enough to go forward.

I like to think Seattle is setting an example for the rest of the nation.

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