Building an Economy that Works for Everyone

Exclusive: Seattle Law Advances Paid Sick Leave Campaign

From the Women’s Media Center:

Seattle recently became the third U.S. city to adopt paid sick days standards. With an 8 to 1 council vote on September 12, Seattle joins San Francisco, Washington, D.C., and the state of Connecticut in establishing this common-sense public health protection.

As the lead sponsor of Seattle’s sick leave ordinance, and chair of the coalition that rallied public support, we are proud of making Seattle a better city to live, work, shop, and run a business. We hope our success will encourage others.

Mayor McGinn signing the Paid Sick Days ordinance. PHOTO: Jen Nance.

In Seattle, about 40 percent of the workforce—190,000 workers—lack paid sick leave. Nationally, the figure is 44 million. Many of these people work directly with the public, in restaurants, retail, and health care. They face a hard choice when sick: either go to work and risk infecting coworkers and customers, while recovering more slowly, or stay home and come up short paying the bills. It’s no wonder that 20 percent of food service employees reported working with vomiting or diarrhea.

Testimony before the Seattle City Council built a compelling case that adopting paid sick days would promote public health, children’s well-being, family economic security, and business prosperity.

School nurse Robin Fleming described flu epidemics sweeping through schools, with sick children lying in her office for hours because no family member could get off work. Tasha, a grocery clerk (whose story is profiled in the Family Values @ Work video “Contagion: Not Just a Movie”), detailed the devastation to her family budget every time she or one of her children became ill and she had to take unpaid days off.

Makini Howell of Plum Bistro and Jody Hall of Cupcake Royale were among many small business owners who endorsed the ordinance. They want staff and customers to stay healthy, and recognize that workers who are supported and respected become more loyal and productive, building more profitable businesses.

In fact, Howell, Hall, and other business owners sat down with advocates and hashed out a “Common Ground” proposal that became the basis for Seattle’s policy.

Seattle’s ordinance covers most of the half million workers within the city limits. Starting in September 2012, companies with the equivalent of 5 to 49 full-time workers must allow workers to earn up to 5 paid sick days, firms with 50 to 249 must provide 7 days, and larger firms 9 days. Companies are free to provide leave as flexible-use paid time off (PTO), so long as the leave can be used as needed for the health needs of the worker or close family members, or as “safe time” to deal with consequences of domestic violence, sexual assault, or stalking. Large firms, if they do use PTO, must provide at least 13.5 days. Shift swapping is allowed, and new companies have two years to comply.

The paid sick days ordinance generated more e-mails and phone calls to council members than any issue in memory. Public hearings and forums were packed. Consistent with polling, which shows overwhelming public support, most people voicing an opinion supported the ordinance. But some expressed fear of acting in a fragile economy, or making Seattle appear anti-business. Others took a more ideological stance against government regulation.

Seattle’s council does not have a history of enacting labor standards. The easiest response would have been to follow the course advocated by the Chamber of Commerce: study the issue and postpone action, perhaps indefinitely. But the process developed by the council and the Seattle Coalition for a Healthy Workforce enabled council members to reach near consensus over the summer despite controversy.

On the coalition side, key factors were:

  • building a diverse coalition capable of mobilizing widespread public participation;
  • bringing in small business partners early and co-drafting policy with them;
  • empowering workers, health experts, and small business owners as spokespeople;
  • maintaining consistent messages focused on public health and family economic security.

The council’s process included:

  • independent staff research on public health and experience following passage of San Francisco’s ordinance;
  • a time-limited stakeholder process including a range of worker and business representatives to air specific policy issues;
  • listening to many diverse perspectives.

The result: Seattle has adopted the strongest and most comprehensive ordinance to date to pass through the wringer of a legislative process.

In these tough economic times, promoting healthy workers, family economic security, and productive businesses is more important than ever. It’s time to recognize that attracting and retaining healthy employees is critical to attracting and retaining businesses.

Seattle’s victory can be repeated. Active campaigns for paid sick days are underway in Denver, Philadelphia, New York City, Massachusetts and elsewhere. We applaud these efforts and look forward to the day when no one in the United States has to choose between health or economic security.

[Pictured in photo: From L to R (front): Marilyn Watkins, EOI; Makini Howell, Plum Bistro; Jean Godden, Seattle City Councilmember; Tasha West-Baker, grocery worker; Nick Licata, Seattle City Councilmember; Robby Stern, PSARA; Gabriela Quintana, EOI.]

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