Sick leave ordinance gets first hearing at Portland City Council

At a Jan. 31 hearing at Portland City Council, Fred Meyer employee and United Food & Commercial Workers Local 555 member Kimberly Johnson speaks in favor of a sick leave ordinance, alongside Local 555 secretary-treasurer Jeff Anderson.

Portland City Council is on the verge of passing an ordinance giving workers the right to sick leave — a far-reaching advance that would improve working conditions for more than a quarter million workers.

The proposed ordinance had its first official hearing Jan. 31. Facing packed chambers, City Council heard close to four hours of public comment that ran more than three to one in favor of the ordinance. Those in favor included Multnomah County Commissioner Deborah Kafoury and state representatives Michael Dembrow, Alisa Keny-Guyer, and Jessica Vega Pederson, as well as leaders of at least half a dozen labor organizations, and officials responsible for public health in the Portland area. Speaking against it were a handful of business owners and industry lobbyists, though some other business owners spoke in favor.

The proposed ordinance would require employers to provide one hour of sick leave for every 30 hours of work — up to 40 hours a year. It would be paid sick leave for employers with more than five employees, and unpaid for employers with five or fewer employees. Employees could use the sick leave when they or a close family member or domestic partner are sick, injured, or in need of preventive medical care.

The ordinance — introduced by Commissioner Amanda Fritz, is the first significant issue tackled by the newly installed Council in which Mayor Charlie Hales and Commissioner Steve Novick are new members.

Several City Commissioners said they would support changes to make the ordinance clearer or more workable, but none appeared to be swayed by arguments that they should wait for the state legislature to take action. Dembrow — a state representative from Northeast Portland and a longtime leader of American Federation of Teachers — read a letter signed by Oregon Senate Majority Leader Diane Rosenbaum declaring that City Council passage of a sick leave ordinance would only strengthen efforts to pass statewide legislation.

The legislature would have plenty of time to act; Portland’s ordinance, as proposed, would take effect Jan. 1, 2014. That’s incidentally also when the most significant parts of the federal legislation known as Obamacare takes effect, so Portland workers would not only get the right to take time off when they were sick, but also would have access to affordable medical care.

Several business people — including the owners of Huber’s and the Daily Cafe — said providing paid sick leave would be burdensome. But at the end of the hearing, Fritz said she was more concerned about the hardship workers face when they work sick or lose wages. As for the cost to employers, if every worker used the maximum five sick days a year and had to be replaced during their absence, it would add 1.9 percent to payroll costs. In San Francisco, which has such an ordinance, workers use about three days a year on average. Meanwhile, at restaurants, sick employees would likely seek to swap shifts, which the proposed Portland ordinance allows, rather than lose tips.

For union grocery workers, a significant feature of the ordinance is that it allows workers to use sick leave on the first day of an illness. Current grocery contracts with United Food and Commercial Workers Local 555 provide paid sick leave, but the leave starts on the third day. Teresa McGrath — one of a contingent of Local 555 members at the hearing — told City Council how she lost her grocery checker job in November 2012 because she made a cash handling error while working dizzy and nauseated on the second day of a bout with the flu.

A 14-member task force chaired by Fritz and fellow city commissioner Dan Saltzman is meeting three times to discuss modifications to the proposal. On issue they’ll consider is whether the ordinance should cover employees who are based elsewhere but work part of the time in Portland, including trucks that pass through.

The task force is about evenly split between advocates and critics of the ordinance, but Fritz said its task is to propose modifications to make the ordinance more workable, not to determine whether to proceed with the ordinance. The one labor representative on the task force is Local 555 secretary-treasurer Jeff Anderson.

City Council will hold a second hearing Feb. 27 on the ordinance, and a vote on it is tentatively scheduled for March 6.

UPDATED: A second public hearing on a proposed sick leave ordinance by the Portland City Council has been pushed back to March 7. Initially, earned sick leave was supposed to come up for a second hearing Feb. 27 and then up for a final vote in early March. Instead, the second hearing on a revised version of the ordinance will be held Thursday, March 7, at 3 p.m. A final vote will follow on a later date.

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