The Time for Earned Sick Leave is Now

By Tony Fuentes of Portland, Oregon. Tony is the co-owner of Milagros Boutique.

My wife, Jennifer, & I have recently become poster children of a sort for Portland employers who support earned sick leave. We believe there should be a basic labor standard that provides all workers with the opportunity to earn paid leave that may be used to heal when ill or to care for a sick family member.

We provide this benefit to our employees at Milagros – part time & full time, hourly & salaried. It has been an important benefit for staff retention and health. It has also been a relatively low cost and burden-free policy for us to implement. Similar to the experience of employers in San Francisco, our employees rarely utilize more than three days of leave for sick time a year.

Milagros opened its doors in 2004. So why has it taken nearly nine years in business for me to become an advocate for earned sick leave?

Because I didn’t know I needed to be one.

Call me naïve or blind or worse, but I didn’t know how many of our community members are faced with this depressing choice when they are ill: go to work sick or stay home and heal but lose income (or perhaps your job).

The truth is that 4 in 10 private-sector workers in the Portland area don’t earn any paid sick time. When you drill down to just low-wage employees, 80 percent of these workers don’t earn any sick time - not a single day, hour or minute. The truth hurts for these members of our community in a big way.

My grandfather came from Mexico and worked on the killing floor in slaughterhouses. He worked extremely hard in harsh conditions, but he was able to support his family and, ultimately, my father’s path to higher education. So I grew up with a basic principle, one I saw in action and directly benefited from: hard work is rewarded and working hard at a job is a pathway out of poverty. But clearly, I’ve been duped -- or the rules have changed.

For the 80 percent of low-wage workers with out any access to paid sick leave, it turns out that working hard at a job is not rewarded and it is not a pathway out of poverty; it is just another form of it.

Beyond the simple standards of fairness and respect that should drive support for allowing workers to earn a reasonable amount of paid sick leave (my employees support me, shouldn’t I support them?), sickness simply doesn’t belong in the workplace. No one wants restaurant workers sneezing on their pancakes, no one wants contagious co-workers at the copy machine, or no one wants a checkout clerk coughing on their purchases – especially if they’re groceries. But that’s exactly what is happening right now because a whole lot of Portlanders can’t afford to stay home sick without pay, or fear losing their job if they do.

Sickness also doesn’t belong in our schools. No one wants children who should be recovering at home – or seeing a doctor - sent to school ill. But that’s exactly what is happening right now because too many parents cannot stay home and care for their ill children. Choosing between tending to an ill child or losing critical income or a job is a choice that no one should have to make.

These situations aren’t outliers or exceptional. When 40 percent of all private-sector workers and the vast majority of low-wage workers have no access to paid sick leave, there can be no doubt that these things happen in Portland every single day.

The good news? These situations are unacceptable to the vast majority of Portlanders. So if I have been duped, at least I’m not alone. And if the rules have changed, I’m not the only one who wants them changed back.

Over 60 percent of Portlanders support a legal labor standard to grant every worker access to earned sick leave (only 15% oppose one). Over seven thousand Portland residents have submitted individual written letters to the City Council requesting an earned sick leave standard for our city.

To be clear, those letters are not asking for awareness of this issue. Those letters are not asking for sympathy or empathy for affected workers. No one is asking for the buck to be passed up or down the tiers of government. No one is asking for excuses. We as a community have been stating very clearly that it is not acceptable to force the working poor to also be “the working-while-sick poor.”

It is time for Portland to embrace its values as a progressive and sustainably-focused community, to make good on our responsibility to each other. It is time for every worker in Portland to be respected and allowed to earn paid sick leave. It is time to set a basic, fair floor on paid sick days that promotes good business practices and fair treatment of employees. Once you know how many of your neighbors and friends and fellow Portlanders don’t earn paid sick days, it is hard to do nothing.

We know what is fair, we know what is right, and we know what action should be taken. Now.

I invite business owners who would like to learn more about the campaign for Earned Sick Leave and the potential elements of an Earned Sick Leave ordinance for Portland to join me at a special business networking event hosted by the VOIS Business Alliance and Main Street Alliance of Oregon at Milagros on December 20th.

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    I'm a small business owner, and we offer paid sick leave as well as vacation (so for me, I suppose forcing that outcome legally has no real impact on me). But is there some reason why employers who balk at paid sick leave can't just say that each employee gets a certain number of days per year when they get paid, even though they're not working, and it doesn't matter what you call those days?

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    No reason at all. As long as the days are paid, the number of days/year meet the standard, and the employee isn't required to schedule in advance or arrange for their replacement.

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