Building an Economy that Works for Everyone

Paid sick leave ordinance means a healthy future for Seattle workers

As summer turns to fall, there’s a bright spot on the horizon: Paid sick days in Seattle. [Photo: Brett Davis, Flickr Creative Commons]

Seattle summers are the best. But with school having just started and fall weather and flu season around the corner, juggling work and family responsibilities will get a little more challenging. There is a bright spot, though: On Sept. 1, a new city ordinance took effect that ensures most workers in Seattle will be able to earn paid sick and safe days, which can be used to care for one’s own illness, a sick child or parent, or to deal with the effects of domestic violence.

Seattle is only the third city in the United States to implement such a measure. It will cover about 150,000 workers who, until now, haven’t had any sick leave. As advocates for the ordinance — and as working mothers with aging parents ourselves — we know the law will have a positive impact on local workers and their families. It will particularly benefit low-wage workers living paycheck-to-paycheck, for whom taking an unpaid sick day is simply not an option.

Many such people work on the front lines of food safety. The Seattle City Council heard from Tasha, a grocery clerk, who detailed the hit her family’s budget takes every time she or one of her children becomes ill, and she has to take unpaid time off. Last year, one in four grocery workers reported working sick because they didn’t have paid sick days. And more than three out of four people employed in restaurants and hotels didn’t have paid sick days.

Paid sick days are also essential for healthy kids and schools. At city council hearings, Seattle school nurse Robin Fleming described the flu sweeping through her schools, with sick children lying in her office for hours because no family member could leave work to pick them up. When parents can take time away from work to care for a sick child, it’s not only better for the child, it helps prevent the spread of disease, keeping us all healthy.

This measure also includes a “safe days” provision for victims of domestic violence and sexual assault. A survivor of violence often needs time off to seek medical attention, find a safe place for family members or pursue legal remedies. Access to paid safe days is critical, because financial independence from an abuser is one of the most important ways a victim can successfully escape the relationship. Paid safe days help ensure workplaces stay safe for survivors’ co-workers, too.

Workers who already have paid leave, either sick leave or a paid time-off policy that combines sick and vacation leave, may not see much change, other than a little more flexibility. Here’s how the policy pencils out:

  • For a business with at least five full-time employees, workers earn up to five days per year.
  • For a business with between 50 to 249 full-time employees, workers earn up to seven days per year.
  • For businesses with more than 250 full-time employees, workers earn up to nine days per year.

Employees started accruing paid sick and safe days just a few days ago, based on the number of hours they work. Part-time and temporary employees, as well as undocumented workers, are covered. New businesses have two years before they need to begin providing paid leave.

The Seattle Office of Civil Rights (SOCR) is responsible for implementing and enforcing the new law. It deserves accolades, both for gathering feedback from local businesses and residents as the final regulations were written, and for reaching out in local neighborhoods to educate workers and business owners about the measure.

Business owners who have questions about implementation, and workers who believe their rights to sick and safe leave have been violated, can learn more about the new law on the city’s website ( or contact the SOCR.

[From Real Change News, Sep 5, 2012, Vol: 19, No: 36]

Janet Chung works with Legal Voice, a women’s legal advocacy nonprofit, and Gabriela Quintana works with the Seattle Coalition for a Healthy Workforce.

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