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Monday, May 25, 2020  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Spokane’s sick leave ordinance up for review as voters pass statewide requirement

Passage of a statewide initiative requiring businesses to provide employees paid sick leave has left a more detailed law in the city of Spokane in limbo.

The Spokane City Council is scheduled to vote Monday on revisions to its paid sick and safe leave policy, first approved in January, that would add teeth and more clearly define which workers are eligible. But backed by a strong push in Western Washington, a statewide requirement that is more generous to employees will become law in 2018, barring a legal challenge.

Two potentially conflicting policies, one taking effect next year and the other in 2018, are causing some concern among local businesses about meeting different standards.

The Downtown Spokane Partnership has asked the City Council to hold off on its scheduled vote on the sick leave implementation, but City Council President Ben Stuckart said the city’s less burdensome requirement in 2017 could act as a “bridge year” for local businesses to gear up for providing state-required paid time off.

“We’re going to make it easy for everybody and just repeal ours” at the end of 2017, Stuckart said Wednesday after returns came in showing Initiative 1433 was passing with nearly 60 percent of votes cast.

Much of the focus has been on the stair-step increase in the state’s minimum wage, reaching $13.50 by 2020. But the measure also requires Washington businesses to grant workers an hour of paid sick leave for every 40 hours on the job.

That equates to between six and seven paid days off each year if the employee is sick, or needs to care for an ailing family member. In January, the City Council passed a measure that was initially opposed by business interests and Mayor David Condon that granted three paid sick days to workers in companies with fewer than 10 employees, and five days off at bigger firms.

Mark Richard, president of the Downtown Spokane Partnership, sent a letter to City Council members Monday urging them to hold off on implementing the new sick leave policy until it’s determined whether the state initiative will become law. Some opponents have suggested they might challenge the initiative if it passed, alleging the measure deals with more than one subject by addressing both the minimum wage and sick leave.

Richard said if the statewide requirement stands, making Spokane businesses comply with the city’s rules would “create confusion, frustration, and frankly more challenges for small businesses.”

“We would be asking business to expend resources, then turn around some time midnext year and review the state initiative and create a new implementation strategy,” Richard said. “I just don’t think that makes any sense.”

Todd Mielke, executive director of Greater Spokane Inc., said his organization was also concerned about “disrupting” businesses with multiple policies over a 14-month period. Mielke said the city should work to make its policy more consistent with the statewide initiative if they want to implement sick leave requirements next year.

If the city does go through with implementing its sick leave policy next year, as written, the council should write a sunset clause into the law making clear the state regulation would be the policy in Spokane when it takes effect in January 2018, Richard said.

The council should then honor their commitment not to punish businesses for violating the policy during 2017, Richard said. Among the changes to the ordinance the council will vote on Monday night is a promise that the city will help inform businesses, rather than punish them, if noncompliance is discovered during 2017.

City Councilwoman Lori Kinnear said she’s received many emails from business owners concerned about meeting the requirements of both the local and state regulations. But she also said delaying the requirement for a year would be unfair to workers expecting the paid leave in 2017.

“I voted for this, and I strongly believe in it,” Kinnear said. “But I did not expect the issue to come before state voters when I voted for it.”

The council approved the citywide regulation on Jan. 11. The initiative was filed with the Washington secretary of state the next day, Jan. 12.

Kinnear said she hoped to speak with Stuckart about potentially delaying the City Council’s vote at least a week to address the concerns of businesses.

Condon planned to meet with City Council members individually over the next few days and discuss the outcome of the statewide vote on the city regulations, said the mayor’s spokesman, Brian Coddington.

“Some of the differences between the policies, that’s going to be part of the discussion,” said Coddington. “Also, how does the city create an environment that’s predictable and understandable for businesses?”

Stuckart said work on the ordinance so far has been “very collaborative” between the mayor’s office and business interests in town.

“All this language came out of discussions with city staff and the businesses,” Stuckart said. “We didn’t make up all the enforcement mechanisms.”

Initiative 1433 passed statewide, but in Spokane County, 54 percent of votes were cast against the measure. Opponents said the minimum wage and sick leave requirements would be too costly for businesses to meet.

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