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Proponents talk up sick-leave plan at council hearing

The city of Portland will establish a task force of citizens, including business representatives, to fine-tune a proposed sick-leave mandate for employers, in hopes of sending it to the Portland City Council for a vote on March 6.

The council held its first public hearing Thursday afternoon on a proposed ordinance crafted by Commissioner Amanda Fritz, before a packed council chambers.

As envisioned by Fritz, the city would mandate that everyone working inside city limits can take at least five days off sick each year without fear of losing their job. Companies with fewer than six workers would not have to pay workers for those days off. Employers with six or more workers would have to provide at least five paid sick days a year, with several exceptions.

“For those who ask ‘why now,’ ” Fritz said, “My answer is why has it taken us so long?”

San Francisco, Washington, D.C., Seattle and Connecticut have passed similar mandates, and so have at least 145 other countries, according to Fritz’s staff.

Though some employers are wary of having a new and costly government mandate, Fritz’s proposal would exempt employers that already provide at least a week’s paid vacation. Those employees could choose to use that time for paid sick days.

The ordinance wouldn’t go into effect until January, in part to put pressure on state lawmakers to pass a statewide sick-leave bill this session.

Three Democratic lawmakers and a former House Democratic leader urged city commissioners to adopt the proposal now and not wait for the Legislature to act.

The city can “lead the path for the state to follow,” said Multnomah County Commissioner Deborah Kafoury, the former House leader. “The state of Oregon does not always do things in the most expeditious fashion.”

The state ban on smoking in public places also came after Portland led the way, said Andrea Paluso, executive director of Family Forward Oregon, one of the groups leading the charge for the ordinance.

Lower-income workers are more likely to lack the right to take off work when ill. An estimated 55 percent of Latino workers in the Portland area lack guaranteed sick leave, said Francisco Lopez, executive director of Causa, an immigrant rights group.

“This is not a luxury issue; this is a basic civil and human rights issue,” Lopez said.

Bill Dickey, co-owner of a 30-employee printing company, Morel Ink, likened the mandate to workers’ compensation insurance, which employers must pay to fund protections for workers injured on the job. “I want to avoid the flu or common cold rolling through the company, whenever possible,” Dickey said.

State Rep. Alissa Keny-Guyer, D-Portland, said allowing workers to take time off early in their illness can prevent them from getting sicker. Thus the measure could help reduce health care costs, she said.

Dr. Justin Denny, the new public health officer for Multnomah, Washington and Clackamas counties, cited a new study that found up to 80 percent of norovirus cases — the ones that cause outbreaks of nausea, vomiting and diarrhea — come from infected food handlers.

“All of the evidence shows that the best way to prevent disease is not to be around sick people,” said Susan King, executive director of the Oregon Nurses Association.

Bill Perry, lobbyist for the Oregon Restaurant and Lodging Association, countered that many restaurants allow workers to trade shifts in lieu of paid sick leave. Many workers relying on tips prefer that, Perry said, because a paid day off wouldn’t recover lost tips.

“A majority of your pay may not be coming from your employer,” Perry said. “So employees prefer to trade shifts.”

The ordinance is slated to take effect just as the main provisions of the Affordable Care Act, also known as ObamaCare, go into effect for employers, Perry said. That will be a double whammy for many employers, he said.

Andrea Smith, owner of The Daily Cafe in the Pearl District, agreed that paid sick leave is a “social good,” but said her company finances aren’t that strong, though she’s owned it 10 years.

“My business is not yet in a position to offer this benefit,” Smith said.

Joe Gilliam, president of the Northwest Grocery Association, ticked off eight problems with Fritz’s proposal, but said if those concerns could be worked out, he could get behind the ordinance. Gilliam said he welcomes the chance to serve on the work group that will be asked to fine-tune the ordinance.

Fritz hopes to bring the ordinance back for another council hearing on Feb. 27, after amendments are vetted.