Building an Economy that Works for Everyone

Employee Experience with Seattle Paid Sick and Safe Leave

In September 2012, Seattle became the third U.S. city to implement a paid sick leave ordinance. By early 2015, more than 20 cities and four states had paid sick leave laws on the books. Seattle’s law requires employers with more than four employees (full-time equivalents) to provide paid sick and safe leave for the health needs of workers and their family members, and to deal with the consequences of domestic violence, sexual assault, or stalking.

Initial evaluations of Seattle’s law and experiences in other localities suggest that many workers are likely to remain unaware of their rights to sick days. Lower wage workers are the least likely to be offered paid leave voluntarily by their employers, and with little bargaining power, are often unable to assert their legal rights even if aware of them.

To gain additional insight into the extent to which lower wage workers in Seattle are aware of the sick leave law and have access to paid sick leave, the Economic Opportunity Institute conducted a survey in partnership with the YWCA Seattle|King|Snohomish in the spring of 2015. Altogether, 83 people who had worked in Seattle during the preceding year participated. The responses to this survey provide insight into how widely Seattle’s sick leave law is being followed, but are not statistically valid for all Seattle workers.

In 2014, Seattle took the additional step of adopting its first citywide minimum wage ordinance. With multiple labor standards in effect, the City of Seattle is in the process of building a more robust enforcement capacity and undertaking renewed outreach to vulnerable workers in partnership with community organizations.

Key findings

  • The majority of respondents said their employer provided paid sick leave: 63% were aware that their employer provided paid sick leave, 20% said their employer did not provide paid sick leave, and others were unsure or did not respond to the question.
  • Half were aware of the Seattle law prior to taking the survey. Most reported learning about the law from either their employers or news media.
  • Half of all respondents reported taking sick leave in the previous year. 88% of leave takers used it for their own illness and 14% for a sick family member. Two women reported use for domestic violence.
  • Women respondents were more likely to use sick leave than men, both for themselves and family care. Whites were more likely than Black, Latino, and Asian respondents to use leave.
  • Among those who knew their employer provided paid sick leave, 75% had taken some in the previous year. 25% reported taking no paid sick days, and 17% reported taking 6 or more sick days.
  • Workers with higher incomes were far more likely to have access to and have used paid sick days, and much less likely to face retaliation, than the lowest income workers. Women were twice as likely as men to have been punished for calling in sick.

paid sick leave access and usage by income

reasons for taking paid sick days

paid sick leave access and usege by racepercentage of respondents who used sick leave

ever experiences punishment for calling in sickMethodology

83 people who were currently working or had worked in Seattle in the past 6 months completed a multiple choice questionnaire March-May 2015. After initial testing, we decided to limit the instrument to 13 questions in order to maximize the response rate, although that meant eliminating more detailed questions about workers’ employers, families, and experience with paid leave. English and Spanish language versions were available in paper form and on-line. Most questionnaires were collected in person by EOI or YWCA staff from people attending job support and other programs of the YWCA Seattle|King|Snohomish. The on-line version provided three of the responses.


Respondents were about evenly divided between women and men – 51% female, 48% male, with one person not choosing a binary gender identity. Workers had lower incomes and were more racially diverse than Seattle’s population overall, in keeping with the intent of this project, but showed less language diversity. Among respondents, 61% earned less than $35,000 annually and 52% were White, compared with median annual earnings of $41,000 for all employed Seattle residents and 66% of all Seattle residents identifying as White alone. 90% of respondents listed English as their language of greatest fluency, while 22% of Seattle residents speak a language other than English at home. Among respondents, as across the U.S., Whites and men tended to have higher incomes.

annual earnings of respondentsrace and ethnic identity of respondents

Discussion and Conclusions

This survey confirmed that the additional outreach and stronger enforcement which the City of Seattle is now undertaking are needed to assure that all Seattle workers entitled to paid sick leave both know of their rights and are able to use sick leave without retaliation. Half of respondents were unaware of Seattle’s sick leave law, and one third said either that their employers did not provide sick leave or they were unsure – a much higher rate than would be expected due to the exemption of companies with four or fewer FTEs.

Low and even moderate income workers continue to be vulnerable. Every respondent who made more than $65,000 said their employer provided paid sick leave, compared to only 59% of those making less than that amount. Among all respondents in that lower income group, 18% said they had faced punishment at some point in their careers for calling in sick, compared to 8% with higher incomes.

Respondents of color were less likely than Whites to have used sick leave in the past year (43% vs. 53%), but more likely to have at some point faced retaliation for calling in sick (20% vs 12%).

This survey echoes findings from other studies that show most workers do not use all the paid sick leave available to them. Of those workers who knew of their employer’s sick leave policy or reported using sick leave although they did not report knowing of a policy, 22% had taken no leave in the previous year and half used fewer than the minimum of five days most Seattle employees are entitled to.

The survey also confirms that some workers in some years do need more than the average amount of leave taken by employees. Fully 17% of this survey’s respondents with known leave policies used six or more days of sick leave in the previous year.

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