Portland to discuss paid sick leave proposal in January

Working America’s Oregon state director Amy Herzfeld, alongside Working America canvassers, prepares to enter Portland City Hall to deliver 3,000 letters of support for an ordinance guaranteeing paid sick leave for workers.

Backers of a paid sick leave ordinance say Portland City Council won’t take up the issue until next year.

The Everybody Benefits coalition, which includes labor, community, and business groups, wants Portland to require employers to provide paid sick leave, as San Francisco and several other cities do.

Portland Commissioner Amanda Fritz said in October she aimed to pass such an ordinance by the end of 2012. Now, Jeff Anderson, secretary-treasurer of United Food & Commercial Workers (UFCW) Local 555, said he expects Fritz will come out with a draft proposal the first week in January.

Andrea Paluso, coordinator of the Everybody Benefits coalition, said the issue couldn’t be timelier. Winter is high season for flu and novovirus (a highly contagious stomach virus that causes vomiting and diarrhea), and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) is forecasting an early and severe flu season this year. Meanwhile, by mid-December, public health officials in Multnomah County were investigating up to eight outbreaks of norovirus, including one linked to an infected food handler that sickened 90 visitors to the Oregon Zoo, and another that sickened more than 30 students and staffers at Buckman Elementary School in Southeast Portland. Norovirus outbreaks occur in daycare centers, nursing homes, restaurants and schools, and CDC recommends that workers not prepare food for others while they are sick with norovirus, and for at least two to three days after recovery.

An electron micrograph of norovirus particles. Photo courtesy of CDC/ Charles D. Humphrey

But up to 40 percent of Portland workers — including nearly all restaurant workers — have no paid sick leave of any kind, Paluso says. Without paid sick leave, workers lose wages and may even face discipline in some workplaces if they stay home because they or a child is sick. Workers who lack sick leave are more likely to go to work sick or to send their kids to school sick, and that spreads illness to others.

“It’s a huge problem,” Paluso said: “260,000 workers in the Portland area alone don’t have access to paid sick days.”

Paid sick leave is a big issue for Anderson’s union, which represents 17,000 grocery workers in Oregon and Southwest Washington. Local 555 is engaged in tough contract negotiations with Portland-area grocers, and one issue of contention is employers insistence that workers not use paid sick leave until the third day of an illness. Under the San Francisco ordinance,  workers can use paid sick days starting on the first day of an illness. They accrue an hour of sick leave for every 30 hours of work, and can use up five or nine days a year, depending on the size of the workplace.

“We’re pushing for Portland to take the leadership role and enact a good piece of legislation,” Anderson said.

One possibility would be a City ordinance set to go into effect in September, after the Oregon Legislature had a chance to consider a statewide paid sick leave law.

“We SHOULD have a statewide law on paid sick days,” Paluso said. “We should have a national law on paid sick leave. In the absence of that, [Portland] shouldn’t wait to act.… Portland has the capacity to act more swiftly than the state government does, and they should be taking the power they’ve been given by the people as elected officials and acting on this.”

Stacks of letters supporting paid sick leave await delivery to Portland City Council, along with complimentary wet wipes and tissues.

Last summer, canvassers for Working America — the AFL-CIO’s community affiliate for workers without a union — talked with 11,000 Portlanders about paid sick leave, and on Nov. 13, the group delivered 3,000 letters of support for a city-wide sick days ordinance to members of City Council. Oregon Working Families Party also talked up the issue in its door-to-door canvass, and the labor-backed party’s state director Steve Hughes said it’s now using those contacts to generate hundreds of phone calls asking members of Portland City Council to move on the issue.

An August 24 poll showed broad support by Portland voters for  “a law that would guarantee all workers in Portland a minimum number of paid sick days to care for themselves or their immediate family members.” Washington, DC,- based GBA Strategies was commissioned by Local 555 to conduct the telephone survey. Of 528 Portland voters, 60 percent were in favor, 15 percent opposed, and 25 percent undecided. The poll had a margin of error of plus or minus 4.3 percent.

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