By DON McINTOSH, Associate Editor
In a 5-0 vote March 13, Portland City Council guaranteed the right to sick leave to all who work in Portland. The ordinance, which takes effect Jan. 1, 2014, will make life a little better for an estimated quarter million Portland workers who don’t currently have sick leave, plus many thousands more who have it but can’t use it when they need it. The ordinance is expected to curb the spread of contagious illnesses in restaurants, schools and daycare centers, because workers will be able to stay home when they or their children are sick.
How it happened
The ordinance’s passage was the product of a year-plus campaign by an energetic coalition of labor, business, and community groups. Key to the campaign’s success, supporters say, was the group nature of the effort — and the decision of Commissioner Amanda Fritz, a former nurse and proud nurses union member, to champion the measure.
The sick leave campaign began with Andrea Paluso, a 36-year-old former community health clinic social worker and mother of two. In 2007, inspired by the online group Moms Rising, Paluso started meeting with a group of Portland mothers in kitchens and coffee shops to discuss how public policies impact family life. After hearing about a bill that would establish paid family leave, they went to Salem to testify in support. But the proposal failed to pass that year, and again in 2009, and its prospects dimmed with the 2010 election. Paluso began to think that going local, with something more basic, was the best strategy.
“There’s this huge section of the workforce that doesn’t have a single paid day off,” Paluso said. “Paid maternity leave seems unrealistic when you can’t even take a sick day.”
Paluso and her group, by now registered as the non-profit Family Forward Oregon, got educated on the issue and quietly assembled a coalition in support. At first the plan was to pass something in Multnomah County, where Commissioner Deb Kafoury was eager to take up the cause. But a legal opinion came back that such a regulation was outside the county’s charter. Municipalities, however, have much greater latitude, and the activists turned their attention to Portland City Council.
Commissioner Fritz recalls that it was the grocery workers union, United Food and Commercial Workers Local 555, that first brought the sick leave idea to her attention — in a candidate endorsement interview for the 2012 primary.
“It was pretty shocking to learn that Fred Meyer grocery workers and deli and checkout people have to be sick for three days before they can use the sick days that they already earned [in their union contract],” Fritz said.
Fritz said she would support a sick leave ordinance. But she didn’t offer to lead it, at first. The coalition would need to demonstrate public support.
The campaign kicked into its public phase in the summer of 2012, and each component of the coalition had a special role to play.
The Oregon AFL-CIO deployed the door-to-door canvass operation of its community affiliate, Working America. The labor-backed Oregon Working Families Party joined that effort, joined by a dozen student interns from the Oregon Bus Project’s Politicorps program. The allied field operation spent a good portion of the summer and fall talking to Portlanders about the sick days ordinance. All told, they knocked on 40,000 doors, generated 3,000 letters and 1,400 signatures on a petition in support of the ordinance. A later round of calls to the petition signers generated 1,300 live phone calls to City Council, says Oregon Working Families Party state director Steve Hughes.
In August, United Food and Commercial Workers Local 555 commissioned a poll that showed 60 percent of Portland voters in favor of a law guaranteeing all workers in Portland a minimum number of paid sick days, and 15 percent opposed. Local 555 — Oregon’s largest private sector union — also threw its weight behind Fritz’ re-election, met repeatedly with commissioners, and then mobilized members to tell their stories at public hearings.
Local 555 hasn’t traditionally been involved in City politics, said union secretary-treasurer Jeff Anderson. “But … this was an instance where our members felt really strongly that sick days was the right policy at the right time.”
Other unions lent support behind the scenes, and met with commissioners to press for the ordinance.
The breakthrough occurred October 27, at mayoral candidates forum sponsored by the Latino civil rights group CAUSA. Fritz showed up and made a surprise announcement: She would work with other City Council members to pass a paid sick days ordinance by the end of the year.
CAUSA was an energetic member of the coalition, and with good reason: It’s estimated that nearly three-fifths of Latino workers lack paid sick days. Latino workers are concentrated in low-wage service sector jobs. It’s only a slight exaggeration to say that there’s no restaurant back-of-the-house in Oregon where Spanish isn’t spoken. CAUSA began running Spanish language radio ads, and filled City Hall chambers several times with supporters of paid sick leave.
Meanwhile, a pair of local business groups, the Main Street Alliance and VOIS (Voice for Oregon Innovation and Sustainability), organized support within the business community and marshaled dozens of business owners to testify in support of a sick leave mandate. That undermined the ability of the Portland Business Alliance, which opposed the ordinance, to argue that the business community was united against it. [And in fact, many Portland businesses already provide sick leave; an estimated 60 percent of Portland employees have it.]
Fritz says by last fall, the ordinance had majority support on City Council: Both then-mayor Sam Adams and then-Commissioner Randy Leonard supported it. But she says she honored a request by the Portland Business Alliance not to take up the issue during the busy holiday season. Instead, it was one of the first items taken up by the newly-seated City Council, which held hearings and convened a task force led by Fritz and Commissioner Dan Saltzman to consider modifications.
In the end, when it came time to vote March 13, all five City Council members thanked the coalition and lauded the measure’s importance, with Fritz calling it “a historic moment for human rights.”
“I think this is a simple question,” said Mayor Charlie Hales. “We should, when we act, do justice whenever we can. This is justice. This is the right thing to do.”
The nitty-gritty: How the ordinance works
Under the Portland ordinance, employees accrue one hour of sick leave for every 30 hours they work, and can use up to 40 hours a year. The leave can be used for diagnosis, care, or treatment of the employee or their family member’s illness, injury or health condition, including pregnancy, childbirth, post-partum care, preventive medical care, and mental illness. Leave can be used to cover all of a shift, such as when an employee is sick, or just part, as in the case of a doctor’s appointment. At employers with six or more employees, the leave is paid, based on the employee’s base wage. The leave will be unpaid at employers with five or fewer employees (basically the ordinance protects those workers from being disciplined for using sick leave.)
Workers can’t use the leave on shifts when they’re not scheduled to work, or during the first 90 calendar days of employment.
Employers are supposed to develop a written policy telling employees how to notify the employer when they need to use sick time, and employees are supposed to notify the employer before the start of the scheduled shift, or as soon as possible. Employees are also supposed to make a reasonable effort to schedule sick leave, when it’s foreseeable, such as a doctor’s appointment, in a manner that does not unduly disrupt operations.
For absences of more than three consecutive days, employers are allowed to require documentation, such as a note from a health care provider or a signed personal statement. But if an employer requires a note from a health care provider, the employer has to pay any part of the cost of such verification if it’s not covered by insurance. On the other hand, if employers suspect abuse of sick time, and can show a pattern such as repeated use of unscheduled sick time on or adjacent to weekends, holidays, or vacation, then they can require an employee to pay the cost of verification.
Sick time that is not used in a calendar year may be used in subsequent years, but in no case does the ordinance require an employer to provide more than 40 hours a year. And there’s no requirement that employers pay out accrued sick time when employment ends; it’s for use when the employee is sick.
Employers may not retaliate against employees for using sick leave.
Nor may they require employees to search for or find a replacement worker as a condition using sick time, or to work an alternate shift to make up for using sick time. But employer MAY allow employees to trade shifts in lieu of using sick time.
Employees who travel to the city and make a stop as a purpose of conducting their work accrue benefits only for the hours they are paid to work within the city.
Employers don’t have to develop new policies or benefits if existing sick time or paid time off policies can be used in the same way, as long as the benefits are as good as or better than those in the ordinance.
Further details of how the ordinance will be implemented will be worked out by the City Attorney’s office by August 31 — four months before it takes effect Jan. 1, 2014. The City will contract with Oregon’s Bureau of Labor and Industries to enforce the ordinance.
Taking it state-wide
At the final hearing before the vote, several state legislators told Portland City Council that passing the Portland ordinance would greatly increase their chances of passing paid sick leave statewide.
Now an attempt to do that is under way, backed by the same coalition that pushed the Portland measure. And at the direction of City Council, the City’s own lobbyists will be also pushing the legislature to pass the law. Fritz herself has been lobbying the legislature, and said the proposal is getting a lot of support from legislators. “[The feeling is] it’s not fair for workers in Portland to have a benefit that workers in Medford do not.”
A hearing on HB 3390 was scheduled for April 3. The measure is very similar to the Portland ordinance, except it wouldn’t apply to businesses with fewer than six employees. It would also require 56 hours (seven days) a year of sick leave, compared to 40 hours in the Portland ordinance.
An emerging nationwide movement
Portland may be the fourth locale to get paid sick leave (after San Francisco, Washington DC., Connecticut, and Seattle), but its passage put wind in the sails of an emerging national movement, says Ellen Bravo, executive director of Family Values @ Work — a network of 20 city and state coalitions working to win paid sick days and paid family leave.
Bravo said bills have been introduced in the Maryland, Washington, and Florida legislatures, and are moving forward in Massachusetts and Vermont.
“There’s a movement all over the country,” Bravo said.
Philadelphia passed a measure the day after Portland. A similar measure passed 9-8 in 2011, but was vetoed by the mayor. This time it passed 11-6. Twelve votes are needed to override a veto, and it was still unknown at press time how it would turn out.
In New York City, a proposed ordinance is supported by a strong majority of City Council, but has been kept from a vote by Speaker Christine Quinn for three years. But in the last six months, enormous pressure has been brought to bear on Quinn by unions, community groups, and women’s rights leaders. Quinn wants to succeed term-limited Michael Bloomberg and become New York’s first female and first gay mayor. Gloria Steinem publicly declared she won’t support her candidacy unless Quinn allowed the sick leave vote. On March 28, Quinn relented, and will allow a vote on a somewhat weakened measure.
The movement has had setbacks too, however. In some cases, when supporters pass local ordinances, opponents run to the state to get laws pre-empting cities and counties from addressing the issue.
- In 2008, Milwaukee, Wisconsin voters approved a ballot initiative by nearly 70 percent, but the local Chamber of Commerce sued to block it. The Chamber lost the suit, but in March 2011 — after Democratic state senators left the state to protest governor Scott Walker’s move to strip public employee collective bargaining rights — Republican lawmakers passed a state law pre-empting the local ordinance.
- The Michigan Legislature is considering a similar bill this year.
- In Orange County, Florida (which includes Orlando), supporters gathered over 50,000 signatures to get a sick leave measure on the November 2012 ballot, but the county commission illegally delayed placing the measure on the ballot. After litigation, it’s now scheduled to go before voters in August 2014, but opponents are trying to pass a state pre-emption law.
For Paluso, the work is local, but the vision is national.
“We need a national standard on sick days, like we have a minimum wage at the federal level,” Paluso said. “We need a standard that says states can do better but they can’t do worse. And it’s going to happen when there’s critical mass in the states.”
On March 20, U.S. Senator Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) and U.S. Representative Rosa DeLauro introduced a pair of paid sick leave bills in Congress, with very similar terms to those in the Portland ordinance.