Sick leave mandate causes concern among building trades unions

By DON McINTOSH, Associate Editor

Low-wage service sector workers are the surest beneficiaries of the new Portland ordinance mandating sick leave. But the ordinance is creating a little bit of heartburn among some building trades union leaders, who wonder how the policy will apply to the high-wage union construction sector.

The ordinance says employers with at least six employees must offer paid sick time to employees who work at least 240 hours in a year (the equivalent of six 40-hour weeks). Employees accrue an hour of sick pay for every 30 hours worked, and may use up to 40 hours a year — though not during the first 90 calendar days of employment.

But construction workers often work for multiple employers in a year, on projects that may last a few weeks or months. Will each of those employers have to keep track of sick pay — if a worker stays more than 240 hours on a construction site within Portland city limits?

Sick leave ordinances in San Francisco and Seattle allow union workers to waive their right to paid sick time in a collective bargaining agreement. Portland City Council opted not to do that, in part out of concern that unions in some cases might have difficulty holding on to sick pay. In the janitorial and grocery industries, for example, union locals could find themselves facing tremendous pressure to waive the right to sick pay from giant national firms that operate with slim profit margins and cutthroat nonunion competition.

“People in collective bargaining agreements need to be able to take time off when they’re sick just as much as people who are not,” said City Commissioner Amanda Fritz, who led passage of the ordinance. “Why would we have a benefit that disadvantages union members?”

The first draft of Portland’s sick leave ordinance exempted employers that use a union hiring hall — as long as they have a clear paid time off policy that’s equal to or better than the one mandated in the ordinance and that can be used for sick days. But that was taken out from the final version. Commissioners decided they wanted a “clean” ordinance, with few or no exceptions and carve-outs.

Though no union publicly opposed the ordinance, concerns came up in half a dozen conversations with local building trades union leaders.

Some didn’t like to see the City intervening in what would be a mandatory subject of collective bargaining.

“It’s almost like the City is negotiating for us,” said Kevin Jensen, business manager of Iron Workers Local 29.

Collective bargaining agreements are the result of a give-and-take negotiation, some said, and a new outside mandate could upset that balance, prompting employers to seek savings elsewhere.

Others questioned whether members would use such a benefit, or said the idea of being paid for not working flies in the face of a prized union ethic: eight hours work for eight hours pay.

“Our whole job is to work ourselves out of a job,” said Sheet Metal Workers Local 16 business agent Willy Myers, who is also president of the Columbia-Pacific Building and Construction Trades Council. “We’re very transitory. If someone is sick for a length of time, the employer is going to want to get somebody else in to do the job. That is our world. It’s not like an office setting.”

Some fears, at least, appear not to be born out by a close reading of the ordinance. For example, the idea that someone working for four employers in a year could get four weeks of sick pay: That would be nearly impossible at the 1-to-30 accrual rate, especially given that workers aren’t entitled to take any sick pay during the first 90 days they’re employed, under the ordinance.

Others said employers might seek to evade the sick pay requirement by laying workers off before they reach the 240 hour or 90-day thresholds, and asking the union to dispatch replacements. Of course, to change out good workers might seem like a lot of trouble to achieve savings that by design could never add more than one thirtieth (3.3 percent) to payroll costs.

But Russ Garnett, business manager at Roofers Local 49, said even small shifts can eliminate profit margins, in a high-cost business where contractors may rely on cost estimates to bid work a year or two in advance.

“To secure work our contractors must compete on every level on every job with nonunion contractors,” Garnett said.

Local union roofers make $28.03 an hour plus $9.65 an hour in benefits, enough that members can afford to eat a day’s wage loss if they’re sick and don’t go to work, Garnett said.

Fritz said she’s sympathetic to at least one concern expressed by construction unions — the hassle of having to track which work is done in Portland for purposes of calculating sick pay. But the best solution for that, she argues, is to pass a statewide sick pay standard.

“It’s important to look at the Portland ordinance as the first step in a statewide effort,” said Oregon AFL-CIO Legislative Director Elana Guiney.

The Oregon AFL-CIO is backing a bill in the Legislature to mandate sick leave statewide.

John Mohlis, executive secretary-treasurer of the Oregon State Building and Construction Trades Council, said he’s working to find agreement on an amendment to that bill, to address the concerns of the building trades sector.

“Sick pay and vacation just don’t work in the construction industry,” Mohlis said. “It’s too transient of an industry.”

“We have [wage] rates negotiated that are higher than they would be than if you just worked for one employer all the time. That higher wage makes up for the fact that we don’t have sick pay and we don’t have vacation pay.”

Once the Legislature wraps up, the City attorney’s office will work out details of how the City of Portland will implement its ordinance. That rule-making process could lessen the concerns of building trades unions, if the rules spell out a way for employers to certify that they already comply with the sick pay requirement. Under the ordinance, employers that have sick leave or paid time off policies that are as good or better — and that can be used by workers for the same purposes — don’t have to come up with new policies: They would be considered to be complying with the ordinance.

Many building trades unions have things like jointly-sponsored vacation funds, to which employers contribute a certain dollar amount per hour under the collective bargaining agreement. For example, contractors pay $1.20 an hour into a vacation account when they employ Sheet Metal Local 16 members, who install HVAC systems for an hourly wage of $36.23. If those funds can be used when the worker or a family member is sick or injured or for preventive medical care, that could satisfy the City requirement and thus eliminate the need to keep special records or change the collective bargaining agreement.

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