Eugene could be next to guarantee paid sick days

Eugene could become the second city in Oregon to guarantee all workers the right to sick leave. Portland passed a sick leave ordinance in March 2013, but a bill to take it statewide died later in the year in a committee of the Oregon House.

Now a labor-community coalition has formed in Eugene to push an ordinance, similar to the coalition that helped pass it in Portland. Known as Everybody Benefits Eugene, the group had its first success when Eugene City Council held a Feb. 24 work session on the idea. A second council work session is scheduled for April 14.

“This is about Eugenians doing what’s right for Eugene,” says Lili Hoag, a Eugene native who studied family policy at the London School of Economics. Hoag, now policy director at the group Family Forward Oregon, said it appears there is majority support on Eugene City Council for an ordinance, though no specific proposal has been introduced yet.

City Council member Claire Syrett — a former organizer with the Jobs with Justice chapter known as the Eugene-Springfield Solidarity Network — is championing an ordinance, along with fellow council member Alan Zelenka, an energy consultant. At the February work session, five of the eight City Council members spoke positively of a sick leave mandate, and Mayor Kitty Piercy is said to be in favor.

If an ordinance is unveiled at the April work session, Hoag said City Council would likely schedule a public hearing and take citizen comment before voting on it.

Kevin Billman, director of legislative and community affairs for United Food and Commercial Workers Local 555, said sick leave is a very important issue for the roughly 600 Local 555 members who work in Eugene Fred Meyer, Safeway and Albertsons stores. That’s because their union contract provides a paid sick leave benefit, but they can’t use it until the third day of an illness. So the first two days they or a child are sick, they either lose wages or they go to work sick or send a sick child to school.

“It’s a hard choice,” Billman said. “Do they take care of their health or their finances?”

UFCW has tried to negotiate first-day sick leave, but Billman said grocery employers have dug in their heels on that issue. A City ordinance would take it out of their hands — and set a level playing field on that issue for all Eugene employers.

The Institute for Women’s Policy Research estimated that 51 percent of private-sector employees in Eugene — over 25,000 workers — have no sick days.

Since no ordinance has been introduced, there are no specifics to debate yet. Under Portland’s ordinance, workers can use up to 40 hours a year of paid sick leave. It would add no more than 2 percent to an employer’s payroll costs if every worker used every hour of it. And for workers, it would be a major human rights advance, and a right enjoyed by most workers in other industrialized countries. Advocates say paid sick days also reduce the spread of illness and increase productivity.

Besides UFCW Local 555, the sick leave campaign is supported by the Oregon School Employees Association,  AFSCME, Oregon Nurses Association, Service Employees, and the Fire Fighters. The Working Families Party of Oregon has conducted door-to-door canvass to build support. The campaign is also backed by the NAACP and by over 45 businesses organized by the small business group Main Street Alliance.

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