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Group seeks sick leave for all who work in Tacoma

May 30, 2013

From the Tacoma News Tribune:

downtown tacomaAlma Gutierrez recalls the days she trudged in sick to her waitress job at a Mexican restaurant in Lakewood — coughing, sneezing or sometimes worse.

“I felt a sharp pain in my right side, and one night after I finished my shift, my gall bladder exploded,” she said. “I had to have emergency surgery that night.”

She also remembers the day she got a call at work from her daughter’s school, explaining that her then-7-year-old girl had been rushed to the emergency room with a severe asthma attack.

“I had to call my sister to go to the hospital,” she said. “I still had two or three more hours to finish my shift.”

Gutierrez’s stories of workplace woe carry a common thread: Her employer didn’t provide paid sick leave.

“I had to keep working,” said the 45-year-old single mother of three. “If I didn’t, I’d get fired.”

It’s stories such as hers that spurred a group calling itself Healthy Tacoma to begin quietly building support in recent months for a new city ordinance to require private employers across Tacoma to provide workers with paid sick leave.

The group — which claims as members more than 30 human rights and minority groups, labor unions, and small business, civic and faith-based organizations – is now ready to go public with what it’s calling the “Paid Sick and Safe Time” plan.

Group members and supporters, including four Tacoma City Council members and state Rep. Laurie Jinkins, D-Tacoma, are expected to unveil a tentative plan during a kick-off rally Thursday night at the Pierce County Central Labor Council office in South Tacoma.

“This would ensure all people working in Tacoma could earn paid sick leave to care for their own illness or for a sick child or family member,” said Sandy Restrepo, the group’s organizer.

No formal proposal has been drafted, but supporters say a measure coming soon will be based on policies adopted in Seattle, San Francisco and Portland.

The plan would involve providing three to 12 paid sick days per year to an estimated 40,000 workers now lacking paid sick leave — a group that represents two out of every five workers in Tacoma, supporters said. Businesses most likely to be affected would be restaurants, retail stores, hotels, construction companies, child care and in-home care, they added.

Like Seattle’s ordinance enacted last year, accrual of paid leave in Tacoma is expected to be based on the size of a business. Each worker would accrue a certain amount of paid leave — say one hour for every 30 hours worked at a firm with 10 or fewer employees, or one for every 15 hours at a firm with 250 workers or more.

The paid leave could be used on personal or family sick days, or to deal with a domestic violence issue, supporters said.

“The ‘Safe Time’ aspect means if you’re a victim of domestic violence,” Restrepo said, “you can get time off to go to court to get a restraining order.”

Tacoma City Councilman Ryan Mello — who backs a sick leave measure — said Wednesday he’s convinced a “critical mass of support” for the idea exists. The Healthy Tacoma coalition said it also has the support of council members Anders Ibsen, Robert Thoms and Lauren Walker.

“I expect something being formally drafted in the next two to four weeks,” he said. “My hope is that we can have the council consider this policy by the end of the summer.”

But, just as similar measures have done in other cities, Tacoma’s proposal already is drawing concern.

“To me, a sick leave bill like this really attacks our small and locally owned businesses,” said Tom Pierson, president and chief executive of the Tacoma/Pierce County Chamber of Commerce.

“Why would we want to put an additional burden onto those folks? My fear is the ramifications that it has on them.”

An analysis conducted after San Francisco implemented the nation’s first sick leave policy in 2007 found that law functioning well, with most workers using fewer sick days per year than the maximum number allowed under the law, and six out of seven employers reporting no adverse impacts to profitability.

Enacted last year, Seattle’s ordinance immediately drew bills this legislative session from Republicans and business groups that sought to repeal or weaken it — mirroring an effort in Wisconsin last summer, when GOP lawmakers successfully revoked Milwaukee’s new sick leave law.

One of Washington’s measures, which passed the Senate but has gone nowhere in the House, proposed narrowing the Seattle law to apply only to businesses based in the city.

“Seattle’s ordinance is incredibly complicated and has become a record-keeping nightmare,” said Josh McDonald of the Washington State Restaurant Association.

McDonald added that the restaurant association, which opposed the Seattle ordinance and has since supported measures to restrict it, wants to make sure any sick leave proposal in Tacoma is inclusive.

“We tried to make (the Seattle measure) work and were told no at every turn,” he said. “If Tacoma does consider this, we’re hoping that proponents will bring us in and allow all stakeholders to be a part of an inclusive dialogue. Without that, we might run into very serious unintended consequences.”

Pierson added he’s concerned the local chamber, which represents hundreds of Tacoma businesses, wasn’t brought in on Healthy Tacoma’s initial planning effort.

“My question is, where’s the epidemic in Tacoma that’s creating so much energy,” he asked. “It would be nice if we put so much energy into putting people back to work or fixing our potholes and our streets.”

But for Gutierrez, any local law that guarantees paid sick time off is long overdue. No longer a waitress, she now volunteers as a human rights advocate for immigrant workers in Pierce County.

“A lot of restaurant workers, they tell me they’re afraid to miss any day of work,” she said. “They just keep going (in) sick. I think this is a perfect idea. I’d be very happy if this happened.”

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