Seattle poised to adopt mandatory sick leave law
To all those workers who can't afford to be sick: Get ready for a pajama day. Seattle is poised to adopt what city officials say is a landmark ordinance requiring all but the smallest companies to offer paid leave when employees or their family members fall ill.
City Council members announced that a majority has lined up in support of the ordinance, scheduled for a vote Monday, which would mandate that companies with more than four -- but fewer than 49 -- employees provide at least five days of paid sick leave a year.
Companies with 50 to 249 employees would have to provide seven days, and those bigger than that, nine days. New start-ups would be exempt for the first two years, and employees wouldn't start earning sick leave until they'd worked at least six months.
Victims of domestic violence would also be entitled to paid time off.
San Francisco and Washington, D.C., are the only other cities to adopt mandatory sick leave requirements. (A similar provision in Milwaukee was put on hold.)
San Francisco's law took effect in 2007 after a voter initiative the previous year. Seattle officials said they wanted to use what's been learned in those two cities and take it a step further, notably, by boosting the requirement for companies that already allow employees to use "paid time off" days for either vacation or sick leave.
"This legislation is a model for cities, states and the nation. It is a practical, strong bill crafted in a collaborative legislative deliberation, rather than requiring citizens to go through the initiative process," council member Nick Licata, who originally sponsored the proposed ordinance, said in a statement.
The Economic Opportunity Institute, which backed the measure as part of the Seattle Healthy Workforce Coalition, estimates that about 190,000 workers in Seattle do not get paid sick days.
Marilyn Watkins, policy director at the institute, said there is a "compelling public health interest" in making sure workers at restaurants, grocery stores and clinics can afford to stay home when they're ill, not to mention operators of heavy equipment.
About a third of all food-borne illness outbreaks from 2006 through 2010 in King County, where Seattle is located, were linked to food handlers who worked while sick, Licata reported on his blog.
"This is also about protecting children, because if parents don't have paid sick leave, kids are left with their health needs unattended to as well," Watkins said in an interview. "It's not surprising that so many low-income kids struggle in school when they're so much less likely to have parents who can afford to be sick."
The measure was drafted with the participation of a number of businesses but has been opposed by some major business organizations, including the Greater Seattle Chamber of Commerce.
Chamber officials said the proposed ordinance could cause employees to lose other benefits, such as higher pay, health insurance or vacation.
"It would hurt employers and would not provide employees with the overall benefits packages that they desire," the chamber said in a statement in June, when a compromise version of the ordinance was first circulated.
The chamber said that with small businesses already "struggling to keep the lights on and their doors open in the most challenging economic period since the Great Depression, now is not the time to mandate the costly and time-consuming regulations as currently envisioned."
Licata aide Lisa Herbold said the Seattle proposal is similar to San Francisco's but imposes a slightly stronger requirement on big companies that already offer their employees generic paid time off, which can be used for either vacation or sick leave. Seattle will require firms with 250 or more employees in those cases to offer 1.5 hours off for every 30 hours worked, rather than the standard sick leave requirement of 1 hour for every 30 hours worked.
"That's an example of how this bill is stronger. We're fixing what we've seen happen in San Francisco," Herbold said in an interview.
A report in February by the Institute for Women's Policy Research concluded that San Francisco's sick leave ordinance has gained broad acceptance among both employers and workers, with only one in seven employers reporting that it affected their profitability.
Six of nine council members have said they will vote for the ordinance when it comes up for adoption Monday afternoon.
--Kim Murphy in Seattle
Photo: They're not sick -- they're simply playing sick people on TV -- but if they were, Seattle would be the place to be. The City Council has enough votes to approve a mandatory sick-leave policy. Here, actors Johnny Galecki and Jim Parsons from the CBS series "The Big Bang Theory" in 2008. Credit: CBS Entertainment