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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Workers in Spokane would get three days of sick leave under proposal to be taken up Monday

The vast majority of workers in Spokane would get paid sick leave under a proposal the Spokane City Council will consider on Monday.

The rule, which would require most employers to provide workers with three days of paid sick leave each year, was heavily debated last summer until council members delayed action on it. The leave could be used for sickness, bereavement, to take care of a sick loved one or to deal with a domestic violence situation.

Supporters argue that workers without sick leave often come to work sick, endangering co-workers and customers. Employees also may put their jobs or personal finances in peril if they must take unpaid leave.

“I really believe that as we look at this issue this is a benefit for the working people, mostly the working poor,” said Spokane City Councilwoman Karen Stratton. “We either pay for it now or we pay for it on the social services side when they lose their job and they don’t have enough money to feed their families.”

Opponents argue the proposal would add costs that would hurt businesses and their employees.

“There’s concern about the impact to small businesses inside the city if they were at a competitive disadvantage with businesses in the area,” said Mark Richard, president of the Downtown Spokane Partnership. The group’s board voted last year to oppose the plan.

Travis Tramp, district director for the Quality Inn in downtown Spokane, said the proposal could hurt local hotels.

“It’s probably going to cost some additional dollars not only in staffing but in our vendors,” he said, noting that vendors likely will increase charges because of added costs for their employees.

He added that he knows of no worker at the hotel who has been penalized for taking a day off for being sick, taking care of a family member or bereavement. They just switch shifts with other workers.

“We don’t even ask why,” he said.

But Spokane resident Joann Pena lost her job in the 1980s, while living and working in San Diego, when she had to stay home from work to take care of her 6-month-old son who had pneumonia, she said. At the time, Pena had sick leave for herself, but her employer wouldn’t let it be used to take care of children.

“When I returned to work they told me that my doctor’s note was not going to be enough,” said Pena, who plans to testify at Monday’s council meeting. “That’s when everything started coming apart.”

Without her job, her family’s finances fell apart, putting stress on her marriage. She divorced and moved to Spokane. She now works as a house painter and does not have paid sick leave.

“This would make a huge difference in people’s lives,” she said.

A City Council report using census data estimates more than 41,000 workers in Spokane have jobs that don’t provide paid sick leave.

Under the proposed rule, employers would have to provide workers one hour of sick leave for every 30 hours they work until they reach 24 hours. Construction workers would be exempt from the requirement, as would those in work-study positions and seasonal and temporary employees.

Greater Spokane Incorporated, the region’s chamber of commerce, opposes the plan but will work with the city on implementation if it is approved, said Alisha Benson, interim CEO of the group.

She said most members already offer paid leave, but the mandate could put some businesses on the edge.

“A one-size-fits-all mandate may be difficult and costly to implement,” she said.

For some, the proposal does not go far enough.

Spokane City Councilman Jon Snyder said three days of paid sick leave is “too little.” He plans to offer an amendment at Monday’s meeting to increase the requirement. A Spokane Regional Health District study found most workers who have paid sick leave use an average of 3 1/2 days a year.

“I would be interested in getting it closer to five,” said Snyder, who will be sitting in his last council meeting Monday before moving to Olympia to take a job in Gov. Jay Inslee’s administration.

He said missing a day’s pay can make a huge difference to a family in poverty.

“This is the best thing we can do to address homelessness this year,” Snyder said.

The Human Rights Commission supports the effort to increase the amount of paid leave, said Blaine Stum, chairman of the group.

Stratton said she believes three days is a good starting point.

“If we’re going to start this, I think for smaller businesses three is easier to swallow than five,” Stratton said. “Five days might be too much to begin with.”

Mayor David Condon has opposed the proposal, but he may not have a say. If he vetoes the ordinance, the council’s liberal-leaning supermajority could override the veto with five yes votes.