Paid Sick Leave: Good Idea, Wrong Legislation

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Speaking about my vote on paid sick leave proposal, 9/12/11

On Monday, September 12, by a vote of 8 to 1 the Council approved legislation requiring Seattle employers to provide paid sick leave days to their employees. I voted against the legislation, although I believe that paid sick leave should be ensured to all people in a humane and just society, and appreciate the work of the advocates who have brought this legislation forward to the Council.

Unfortunately, this legislation does not address the issue in a workable and fair way. Although it has been significantly improved since it was introduced, the legislation falls short of its objectives on the following grounds:

  • It does not provide the kind of universal basic standard that has proven to be effective in protecting people in our society
  • It is unfair to workers because it provides different benefits depending on the kind of entity they work for
  • It does not adequately address public health
  • It creates a complex, bureaucratic, and prescriptive system that will be difficult to administer and manage
  • It will probably result in reduced benefits and fewer hours for low-wage workers.

For those reasons, I regretfully voted against the legislation. The key problems I see with the current legislation are that it:

  1. Does not create a system that is universal and fair: Successful social legislation has generally focused on providing a basic universal standard that applies to everyone. Social security and minimum wage legislation are the classic examples. In contrast, this legislation sets up a system that excludes some workers and provides different benefits depending on the size of the workplace
    1. The proposal differentiates among workers by setting up a tiered system based on the size of the company or organization. A barista who works for a neighborhood espresso stand may get no paid sick leave if the company is small enough, but would get 5 days if s/he went to work for a mid-size company, and 9 days if s/he went to work for a large company. It is difficult to see how this kind of inequality can be justified. Studies of the San Francisco ordinance show that the average worker takes less than 3 days of paid sick leave per year.
    2. Likewise, the proposal has different requirements for larger employers, with no real justification. There is no clear rationale for requiring an employer with 260 employees to provide more sick leave days than an employer with 50 or even 25. The apparent rationale appears to be that the larger the business or organization, the easier it will be to pay the cost of paid sick leave. That assumption does not take into account differences that do not relate to size. A large restaurant may generate less profit than a small software developing company. And these tiers also affect the wide range of nonprofit organizations.
  2. Fails to appropriately address public health. Although the legislation has been promoted as protecting public health, no study has established that there is a significant public health issue that paid sick leave would address. While there may be some benefit, this legislation has a number of exceptions that weaken its effectiveness.
    1. According to the proponents’ own numbers, 39,000 workers, about 20% of those who may receive coverage under this legislation, are directly exempted by the exception for “micro” businesses with 4 employees or less.
    2. Tens of thousands of others are potentially exempted because the legislation allows the right to paid sick leave days to be negotiated away by management and labor unions in collective bargaining negotiations.
    3. The legislation sets a different number of required paid sick days based on the size of the business or organization. There is no public health reason to suggest that those who work for larger entities will get sick more often or that those who work for smaller entities will have illnesses of shorter duration.
  3. Is bureaucratically complex and prescriptive: The result of this complexity is legislation that is bureaucratically prescriptive rather than based on the outcome for the workers. Companies and organizations that currently provide benefits may have to redesign their systems to meet the City’s requirements. Workers may lose benefits because companies could decide that they must reduce their flexibility in order to be within the letter of the law. An alternative approach would be to adopt a mandate that companies and organizations provide sick leave without creating this kind of bureaucratic model. That would allow the many different kinds of entities to devise systems tailored to their specific needs and those of their employees. The Seattle law is some 38 pages long – other such laws, such as those in Connecticut and DC, are 6 to 8 pages.
  4. Is administratively burdensome: This legislation will apply to employers located in Seattle or those headquartered elsewhere but with employees working at least 240 hours per year within the city. It will be challenging for, say, a landscaping business based in Renton with employees working throughout King County to adequately track the number and location of employee hours. Employers may have to implement different benefits packages for a potentially small percentage of their workforce.

An additional concern has been raised that such legislation could cost jobs by raising employer costs, or be a factor in deciding whether or not to locate in Seattle or elsewhere in the region. It is hard to evaluate how significant this concern is, and Seattle will remain a great place to do business for many other reasons. However, the risk of possible job impacts is another argument in favor of a system that has less potential costs and management challenges. It also suggests that this legislation would work better at the State rather than City level.

Councilmember Sally Bagshaw and I proposed alternative legislation that would meet the following goals:

  • Establish paid sick leave as a best business practice
  • Create a universally applied system that is fair and protects the interests of workers
  • Create a floor, like the minimum wage, and encourage businesses to go further
  • More clearly ensure public health benefits
  • Result in a system that is simple, efficient, economical, and manageable.

Unfortunately, we were not able to persuade our colleagues to support this alternative.

I very much appreciate the work of Councilmembers Burgess and Clark in securing amendments that significantly reduced some of the problems with this legislation, and to Councilmember Licata for being willing to be flexible and working out some of these issues. It is better legislation than it was at first, and it will also likely provide benefits to some workers. However, because of the above concerns and possible negative impacts, I regretfully could not support it.