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  • 23 Oct 2014

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Grocery workers like city sick leave plan, business groups say it will cost jobs

Portland City Council appears poised to approve a mandatory sick leave ordinance for people who work inside city limits, over the objections of some powerful employer associations.

City commissioners heard three hours of testimony Thursday, March 7, on a slightly revised proposal that’s expected to come up for a council vote next week.

The ordinance would guarantee most workers can take time off work without fear of getting fired; for operations with six or more employees, the employer must provide at least five days’ paid time off a year, either in the form of sick leave or other time.

After an initial public hearing on the ordinance on Jan. 31, City Commissioners Amanda Fritz and Dan Saltzman led a task force to consider tweaks in the proposal. The new version would require a 90-day waiting period before workers could take the sick leave granted by the ordinance. In addition, an exemption for collective bargaining was dropped, which means the city policy would override negotiated labor contracts if they don’t provide at least the same benefit.

That pleases grocery workers, whose union negotiated a modest contract with companies like Fred Meyer and Safeway that only grants them paid sick leave on the third day of an illness.

Susan Lund, who has worked in the grocery industry 15 years, said that doesn’t work for her because she can’t afford to lose a day or two’s pay. And when her illness lasts three days, she has to see a doctor, at additional expense, to confirm she was ill.

“As a result, I do go to work sick all the time,” Lund said.

When her son was being bullied at school, Lund kept him home and took time off. Her employer said she was on thin ice as a result, Lund testified.

Business groups oppose plan

Lobbyists for the Portland Business Alliance, restaurant and grocery industries said they still oppose the ordinance, though they were pleased with some of the changes made by the task force. Some of the changes were designed to ease the administrative burden for employers that already grant at least a week’s sick pay a year.

Joe Gilliam, who heads the trade group for Northwest grocers, said the ordinance would prod Franz Bakery to move out of the city. “You’re going to lose 60 to 150 jobs as a result of this ordinance,” Gilliam said. “We oppose it.”

Bernie Bottomly of the Portland Business Alliance ticked off several reasons why the city’s largest business association opposes the ordinance. The group questions adopting an ordinance on a city level, Bottomly said, and it opposes overriding companies and unions that have engaged in collective bargaining on sick pay.

“This essentially says we don’t care,” he said of that provision.

The Portland Business Alliance also argues it should be the city’s job to educate workers about the sick pay benefit, not employers’ job, Bottomly said.

Andrea Paluso, executive director of Family Forward Oregon, said some of the business critique is reminiscent of responses in past generations when minimum wage, child labor and other worker protections were instituted.