Labor steps up big-time to help pass paid Eugene sick leave

UFCW at Eugene Sick Leave hearing
UFCW Local 555 members in yellow union shirts pack the house at a hearing on Eugene’s proposed sick leave ordinance, which passed July 28.

Activists in Eugene, Oregon, are celebrating a major win for workers’ rights and public health: A city ordinance mandating paid sick leave.

The ordinance, which passed July 28 on a 5-3 vote, gives Eugene workers up to 40 hours of paid sick leave per year, to be used when they or a family member need treatment or diagnosis. It will take effect July 1, 2015, and will cover all employees who perform their work in Eugene, regardless of where their employer is based.

Eugene’s ordinance is stronger than the similar ordinance that took effect in Portland in January, because it applies to all workers, whereas Portland’s ordinance doesn’t require employers with fewer than six employees to provide paid sick leave.

Sick leave was the hot topic in Eugene in the last seven months.” — Family Forward Oregon organizer Lori Trieger

The Eugene ordinance contains two exceptions. It doesn’t apply to federal, state, county or school district employees because the City lacks authority to regulate their employment conditions. And it doesn’t apply to construction industry workers who are covered by a collective bargaining agreement because their employers don’t provide benefits directly: They make hourly benefit contributions, and benefits are administered independently by area-wide trusts that are overseen jointly by union and employer group representatives.

To win passage of the ordinance, Eugene activists followed the same playbook as their Portland counterparts: Nonprofit Family Forward Oregon spearheaded a local coalition with the substantial support of unions and sympathetic business owners. United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Local 555, in particular, stepped up to make it happen. It helped fund the salary of a full-time community organizer, repeatedly mobilized members to show support for the ordinance, and paid for a canvass which knocked on over 10,000 doors and developed a list of several thousand supporters, in a city of 158,000.

“Sick leave was the hot topic in Eugene in the last seven months,” said Family Forward Oregon organizer Lori Trieger.

According to her group’s estimate, half of Eugene’s private sector workforce — just over 25,000 workers — don’t currently have paid sick leave. The ordinance will improve the lives of those workers, and of other workers who do have sick leave. UFCW Local 555 represents over 400 workers in Eugene whose union contracts provide paid sick leave, but only after an illness has lasted three days. Now those workers — grocery workers at Fred Meyer, Safeway, and Albertsons, and meat-cutters at Red Apple Market and Long’s Meat Market — will be able to use the sick leave on the first day of an illness.

 

County sneak attack

The sick leave ordinance enjoyed broad support from the public, and even from some business owners, like Falling Sky Brewery (which became the site of the sick leave campaign’s victory party July 30.)

But because 40 hours a year of paid sick leave could increase payroll costs by as much as 1.9 percent, the Eugene Area Chamber of Commerce fought vehemently against the ordinance. The week before the vote, it found sympathy among the Lane County Board of Commissioners. Months after Eugene City Council held the first hearings on the sick leave ordinance, Lane County Commissioner Jay Bozievich rushed forward three ordinances aimed at undercutting or preventing the sick leave ordinance. The first of the three county ordinances exempts other public employers from the ordinance (The city ordinance ended up doing that anyway). The second declares that city ordinances regulating employment conditions don’t apply to employers if their addresses are outside city limits. The third, dubbed the “nuclear option,” declares any local government ordinance that regulates employment conditions to be “without legal force and effect” in Lane County. All three ordinances declare an emergency, so that they could take effect immediately, “for the immediate preservation of the public peace, health and safety.”

The anti-paid-sick-leave county ordinances were scheduled for a vote July 21, when Commissioner Pete Sorenson, a supporter of paid sick leave, was scheduled to be out of town. The first two passed 4-0, and the third passed 3-1.

Willamette University law professor Paul Diller, an expert on pre-emption, said Lane County’s pre-emption ordinance may be unprecedented. County governments often set a regulatory floor that applies county-wide, but Diller said he’s never heard of a county telling cities they may not regulate in a given area.

Incredibly, the three county ordinances cite the fact that Oregon puts counties in charge of protecting public health as grounds for attempting to strike down a city public health measure. In contrast, when Portland City Council was considering its ordinance, Multnomah County officials testified — quite reasonably — that paid sick leave is justified on public health grounds because it reduces the spread of contagious disease in workplaces and schools.

Every action has an equal and opposite reaction.” — Local 555 secretary-treasurer Jeff Anderson

The Lane County ordinances also cite the “home rule authority” counties are given under the Oregon constitution. But the City of Eugene has the same home rule authority. By approving the three ordinances, County commissioners set the stage for a taxpayer-funded legal battle between two public bodies. If and when that comes to pass, independent legal experts say the County is likely to lose.

Sick leave supporters reacted with shock when Lane County approved the three ordinances, and they’re vowing to hold the commissioners accountable: Commissioners Jay Bozievich, Sid Leiken, and Faye Stewart, voted for all three, and County Chair Pat Farr voted for the first two.

“Every action has an equal and opposite reaction,” said Local 555 Secretary Treasurer Jeff Anderson. “In 2016, the Lane County commissioners will see theirs.”

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