Requiring employers in Spokane to provide workers paid sick leave took another step forward this week.
The Spokane City Council on Monday approved the formation of a committee comprising health, labor and business representatives to help craft a paid-leave law.
Despite asking business organizations to take part in the discussion, council members are being accused of already making up their minds on the policy. Critics of the council, including some of its own members, say sick leave will lead the way to raising the city’s minimum wage. Council President Ben Stuckart said the council would not raise the minimum wage this year.
Spokane’s sick leave proposal came to the fore earlier this year when U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., came to town to promote the Healthy Families Act, which would allow American workers to earn up to seven days of paid sick leave a year. Council members Amber Waldref and Jon Snyder are driving Spokane’s proposed policy, which is backed by a majority of the council.
“I’m concerned about growing income inequality in our community, and many low-wage workers in our community don’t have access to paid sick leave,” Waldref said. “Taking a day of unpaid time can really add up when it comes to being able to afford food, medical care, other basic necessities.”
Though the policy is not finalized, an early draft includes earning one hour of sick leave for every 30 hours worked, allowing employees to use sick time after 90 days of employment and allowing its use for illness, injury, preventive care or caring for a sick family member. The proposal also allows time to be taken for issues related to domestic violence.
Waldref said there is no “preconceived ordinance,” and the council is open to: allowing employers to permit sick workers to trade shifts in lieu of missing work; considering whether businesses with few employees will be required to provide time; and whether part-time workers would earn such time. Though he hasn’t taken a public position on sick leave, Mayor David Condon has concerns that the council is rushing the legislation, city spokesman Brian Coddington said.
On Monday night, after hearing from about a dozen opponents and supporters, the council approved the “working group” by a 4-2 vote. Council members Mike Allen and Mike Fagan voted against the resolution.
Allen criticized the majority of the council for “placing this burden on the folks who create the jobs” and “trying to figure how do we take entry-level jobs and try to make them living-wage jobs. To me that doesn’t make sense. … That to me is crazy.”
“I find it kind of funny that we didn’t see any business owners step to that podium going, ‘Bring it on. Go ahead, give me the minimum wage. Go ahead, give me the paid sick leave,’ ” Fagan said. “We didn’t hear that. I wish we would have.”
At the meeting, business owners and people representing business groups pushed hard against the proposed policy, some of them saying they would consider moving their businesses out of town to avoid the requirements.
Larry Lambeth, president of Employment Screening Service Inc., said if the sick leave proposal was enacted it would cost his company up to $85,000 a year and be a “definite disaster.”
“We sat down with our CPAs and our attorneys, and they said our only option if this is passed is to move our business to Post Falls,” said Lambeth, who is also a board member for the Washington Policy Center, a conservative think tank. “Most of our employees are single moms with kids that we’ve taken with no education, we’ve trained them and we pay them very, very well. … We’ll lose most of them because they can’t make that drive to Post Falls.”
Jeff Hofstader, a meat cutter for the past 33 years, was one of the people who voiced approval of the sick leave idea, saying some workers have to choose between staying home sick or paying bills.
“At one time or another, we all get sick,” he said. “Yet thousands of people who work in the city of Spokane cannot take a single day off from work to recuperate or care for a sick loved one without missing a paycheck.”
Both supporters and opponents of the policy cite recent surveys showing backing for their position. Stuckart said a poll done by the liberal Spokane Alliance showed 86 percent of respondents approving of paid sick leave.
Steve Stevens, CEO and president of Greater Spokane Incorporated, said a recent survey done by his group received 130 responses. Though 70 percent said they already offer sick leave, 64 percent wanted GSI to oppose the policy. Only 16 percent said it should support the council’s effort.
“There are some pretty strong feelings out there,” Stevens said. “It’s not too ambiguous how people feel.”
Stevens said he was concerned that the sick leave policy was the “camel’s nose under the tent” and would lead to the council increasing the minimum wage.
“If it looks like there’s a lot of support out there for sick leave, I think they’d consider it,” Stevens said, referring to a minimum wage increase.
During Monday’s council meeting, Allen echoed this sentiment.
“I got a feeling next year there will probably be some sort of new minimum wage for the city coming forward, all the while eroding our own competitiveness in this region,” Allen said.
But Stuckart said the council “will not be considering an increase in minimum wage in 2015.”
“That’s a huge assumption on their part because we’ve never said anything about that,” he said. “We’re brought these issues by the people. We have hundreds of people interested in sick leave, so we’re considering it. I have not had hundreds of people approaching me about minimum wage.”
Waldref said she believed the current minimum wage is “not adequate” nor has it kept up with inflation over the years. Still, she said, the issue is not something the city should decide. Instead, it should be done at the state or federal level.
“That’s not in the cards,” she said. “The minimum wage debate is happening. I realize that. But for me, personally, sick leave is more important.”