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Sick and safe leave right for Spokane

January 25, 2016

[via The Spokesman-Review] No one should be forced to go to work sick. No child should languish ill and miserable at school because her parent fears a missed shift will result in a lost job. No worker should have to choose between grocery money or taking a few days off to get well.

That is what thousands of citizens told the Spokane Alliance in its two-year campaign to bring earned sick and safe leave to more than 40,000 low-income workers who toil in Spokane with no safety net.

In 2014, and again last year, the Spokane Alliance convened two community forums attended by 500 people at which several Spokane City Council members agreed to work with us on a sick-leave policy. Dozens of local businesses joined in, arguing that paid sick leave and paid time off to deal with domestic violence is good for their employees – and good for business. Over 1,000 local people signed supportive cards that we delivered to City Hall last summer.

Our elected City Council members listened – and acted.

They convened a diverse task force of business leaders, health professionals, unions and nonprofits to study the issue. In June, the task force recommended that “all employees should be covered for earned sick and safe leave in Spokane.”

On Jan. 11, the City Council voted 6-1 for an ordinance requiring businesses to offer three to five days of sick leave, depending on business size, for everyone in the city.

Now that Mayor David Condon has vetoed the ordinance as threatened, the council should immediately override.

Seventy-two people signed up to testify on Jan. 11. Supporters of earned sick and safe leave packed the council chamber. The overwhelming majority of those who spoke urged a strong ordinance to protect public health. Many told moving stories.

Adrielle Toussaint recounted having the stomach flu and being told by her now former employer she had to come to work anyway. As she sat weeping on the bathroom floor after being violently sick, her boss told her to get back to serving her retail customers.

School nurse Kira Lewis described kids coming to school with fevers and flu because their parents could not take off work.

After the vote, City Council President Ben Stuckart said he could not imagine not having sick leave while his father lay dying over a year ago and his wife experienced health problems in recent months.

Spokane now joins two dozen other cities – large and small – and four states in having minimum paid sick leave. All faced opposition from a vocal minority, but data show the fears expressed by critics are unfounded.

Local economies with sick-leave laws are equaling or outperforming nearby communities in job and business growth, according to academic and government studies.

During Spokane’s debate over sick leave, it has been easy to forget about the high cost of not guaranteeing sick leave for all: poorer health, children struggling in school, family insecurity and lost consumer spending.

In a recent report, the Spokane Regional Health District said “presenteeism” – coming to work sick – leads to lost productivity, increased workplace accidents and higher turnover, forcing costly hiring and training of new workers.

Business economists have repeatedly found that presenteeism costs American companies more each year than providing sick leave. Those savings explain why most employers have been able to implement new sick-leave policies with minimal impact on business costs.

Spokane’s ordinance is especially well-designed because it covers almost all employers. Germs don’t pay attention to an employer’s size.

Customers of Spokane businesses will be able to rest a little easier next year when the law takes effect, knowing the person serving their salad, caring for a loved one in a nursing home or handling their store purchase isn’t being forced by family finances or employer policy to come in sick.

And the workers themselves? They will have a modest safety net allowing them to cope with illness and domestic violence.

We congratulate the Spokane City Council on its new sick and safe leave policy – a victory for everyone.

Carol Krawczyk is the lead organizer for the Spokane Alliance. Marilyn Watkins is the policy director of the Economic Opportunity Institute, a Seattle-based think tank.

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