Union-backed coalition calls on Portland to require paid sick leave

By DON McINTOSH, Associate Editor

A union-backed coalition is gearing up to ask City Council to make Portland a leader on human rights. Workers have a guaranteed right to paid sick leave in 163 other countries, but not in the United States. But in the last five years, San Francisco, Washington, D.C., Seattle, and the state of Connecticut have passed laws requiring employers to provide paid sick days. If Portland passes such an ordinance and the trend continues to take off, it would be an unmistakeable improvement in the lives of some of the nation’s lowest-paid workers.

Right now, about four in 10 private sector workers in the United States have no paid sick time. When they get sick, they must either stay home and lose income (or even be disciplined, in some workplaces) … or go to work sick, and in some cases expose co-workers and the public to contagious illness.

Making matters worse, the workers who don’t have paid sick leave are also usually the poorest workers — who can least afford to lose wages. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, only 23 percent of the lowest paid workers — those in the bottom 10 percent — have paid sick leave.

“What that means in real terms,” says Portland campaign coordinator Andrea Paluso, “is people go to work sick and/or they send their kids to school or childcare sick because they can’t take the time off. And that has real public health consequences.”

Paluso is director of the group Family Forward Oregon, and a member of the state committee of the Oregon Working Families Party, a union-sponsored political party. She says paid sick leave is an emerging national movement.

“Nobody should have to go to work sick, and nobody should lose income because they’re sick.” — Andrea Paluso

San Francisco was the trailblazer: Since 2007, it has required every employer to provide paid sick leave, which workers can use when they or a family member are sick. Workers there accrue one hour of sick leave for every 30 hours they work, and can accumulate up to 72 hours of sick leave (40 hours at workplaces with fewer than 10 employees.)

In Portland, the campaign, known as “Everybody Benefits,” has been working on proposed language for an ordinance, and has been seeking support from members of City Council. The coalition includes Working America; the Oregon Working Families Party; Oregon AFSCME Council 75; United Food and Commercial Workers Local 555; Service Employees International Union Local 503; and Oregon Nurses Association; as well as Urban League and several small business groups.

Many union members have paid sick days already, but plenty more would directly benefit from an ordinance. Grocery workers represented by Local 555, for example, have paid sick leave — but can’t use it until the third day they’re sick.

The Portland ordinance would likely have an exception for union workplaces like longshore and building trades, because those workers have other options under their collective bargaining agreements. They typically are dispatched by hiring halls and work short stints for multiple employers. They can choose not to work when they’re sick for short periods; and for more serious illnesses, they have short-term disability coverage.

In Working America’s door-to-door canvass, staff organizers like Kyle Allen and Tara Murphy are finding support from Portlanders for a paid sick leave ordinance.

Working America, the AFL-CIO’s community organization, has begun talking about paid sick days in its Portland door-to-door canvass operation. Kyle Allen, a Working America canvasser, says 95 percent of Portland residents he’s spoken to think paid sick time is something workers should already have. The canvass is gathering letters of support for an ordinance. The campaign is also circulating a petition, and gathering people’s personal stories about sick leave here.

On some doorsteps, Working America’s sick leave discussion really hits home. One single mom, who for fear of employer retaliation asked that her name and workplace not be identified, told the Labor Press that as a $10-an-hour full-time worker in a child care center, she can’t afford to take the day off when she or her young son get sick. And she gets sick as often as once a month — because many parents don’t have paid sick time either, and send their sick kids to daycare.

Low-wage service-sector workplaces like restaurants, nursing homes, and daycare centers are among the least likely to have paid sick days. So backers say an “earned sick days” law would be a victory for public health as well as human rights.

“Our pitch to commissioners is, ‘You’re part of a national movement,’ ” Paluso said. “This is like child labor or the minimum wage. We want a federal labor standard that applies to everyone in this country.”

“Nobody should have to go to work sick,” Paluso said, “and nobody should lose income because they’re sick.”

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