Sick Leave -- Healthy for All

Kristin Teigen

There's a hearing on this proposal January 31st at 2pm at City Hall. Come and have your voice heard!

We have cause to celebrate. Portland has joined other visionary cities in putting forth a measure to enable its residents to earn sick time while they work, ensuring that they have the ability and right to stay home should their health, or the health of a family member, demand it. Basic, right? Yet over 40% of Portland area workers currently don’t have it. A number that doubles to 80% when you drill down to just low-wage workers nationally. Commissioner Amanda Fritz, supported by grassroots organizations like Family Forward Oregon and a broad coalition of public health advocates, employer associations, workers, and unions, has proposed a modest law that ensures that workers won’t lose needed income and for some, their jobs, if they become ill.

My elation, however, dimmed when I read the Oregonian’s recent editorial on the proposal. A few choice words came to mind. Myopic. Out of touch. Hyperbolic. Inflammatory. Off of the mark. Narrow-minded. Short-sighted.

In it, the editorial board informed us that such a policy would be “sticking it” to small businesses. Citing no actual evidence, the editorial suggested that businesses would flee, workers would grumble and that trust in the free market itself would erode. They even proposed that instead of pursuing effective legislation, that we could consume our way into a healthy community by only shopping or eating where workers earn sick time (you have a list of all of them in your head, right?).

Before we decide that capitalism as we know it is headed for a cliff, let’s review a bit more about this specific proposal, and sick leave in general.

First, the law would allow workers in Portland to earn one hour of sick time for every 30 hours worked, That’s pretty standard and falls in line with (or below!) what many employers already offer. For those businesses with five or fewer employees, the leave would be unpaid, yet would extend job protection (which is important because people get fired for calling in sick in some backwards workplaces). For those businesses with more than 6 workers, the leave would be paid at one’s usual wage. The policy rewards loyalty, as the hours are earned over time. And it only impacts those who work 240+ hours in the city. Check this FAQ for employers if you have specific questions about how the proposal would affect you.

What does this mean for the approximately 260,000 Portland area workers who currently lack even a single paid sick day? It means that the call from the school won’t prevent them from paying their rent. It means that the flu and norovirus sweeping Portland won’t cost them their job. It also means, simply, that our neighbors and friends can rest and see a doctor when they need to.

It is, however, about more than just those workers – it’s about 100% of us. It’s about the waitress who won’t be serving your burger with a side of her own germs. It’s about the factory worker who won’t imperil the safety of everyone else on the line. It’s about all of our children who won’t be exposed to the illness of the child forced to go to school so her dad won’t lose his job. It’s about our community, and the standards we have for us all.

But what about those small businesses? Some five years ago, San Francisco implemented a very similar policy (but with more earned days per year and paid time), which the Institute for Women’s Policy Research evaluated in 2011. The study found, despite initial concern from the business sector, that a majority of employers now supported it, as it diffused what had been a highly stressful situation (getting very ill and having to work) and greatly improved employee morale. The executive director of the Golden Gate Restaurant Association was quoted as saying “paid sick days is the best public policy for the least cost.” The study also found that workers used the leave only in incidences of true emergency, used far fewer days than allowed, and were less likely to be forced to send a sick kid to school.

We all know that businesses need to be strong for a vibrant community, but we need more than that. When you find an issue that sits at the intersection of public health and economic welfare, we have an obligation to consider how it impacts employers and employees. Health care costs and business savings.

As for me, I write this with a child asleep upstairs with a stomach ache and with a cold myself. I’m lucky, as I don’t have to worry about losing a job or needed income when my child is sick. Yet I’m no more deserving than someone who doesn’t have the financial means to do exactly the same. “Lucky” shouldn’t have anything to do with it – especially because, at some point, we all get sick. We just don’t all have the time it takes to recover. But we could – and should.

There's a hearing on this proposal January 31st at 2pm at City Hall. Come and have your voice heard!

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