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Seattle sick leave law: So healthy that others want to follow suit

Nick Licata

As noted recently on Crosscut and elsewhere, Seattle’s Paid Sick and Safe Leave law turns one year old this month. September also marks the new school year and a new flu season. Each is a good reminder that our public health is improved when employees don’t have to choose between coming to work sick or losing a day’s wage. 

Before the enactment of the paid sick and safe leave benefit, nearly 40 percent of Seattle’s workers, in about 190,000 jobs, had no paid sick days. When these employees got the flu, some would go to work sick. Likewise, if a child was sick, a parent without paid sick days had to decide whether to lose pay to stay with the child, or send the child to day care or school, where other children might be infected.

Detractors have marked this anniversary by pointing to what they call the “unintended consequences” of the law as reported by the Employment Policies Institute (EPI). I was curious about this organization and found that it is one of two dozen groups run by Richard Berman, the former director of labor law for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, to oppose legislation proposed by labor, consumer safety and environmental groups. Under the guise of studying “the impact of new labor costs on job creation,” Berman has opposed not only paid sick leave but also increasing the minimum wage.

His approach is to focus on half-truths that pose as unbiased research. For instance, his EPI said that many employers planned to decrease employee vacation benefits or increase consumer costs to cover what they perceived as the costs of paid sick and safe leave to be to their profit. They may be planning to do so because they were opposed to providing this benefit to begin with. And planning on something is not the same as having actually done it. To repeat EPI’s accusation that the unintended consequences of Seattle’s adoption of paid sick leave were not anticipated distorts the truth. The council was informed, before the vote on the paid sick and safe leave benefit, about the experience of cities that already had the law. Some employers raised prices or reduced employee vacation benefits to cover the perceived costs of the paid sick leave benefit to their profit.  

But we learned from these same cities that actual employer costs from paid sick leave was small (less than two-tenths of 1 percent of sales) and that savings actually resulted for employers providing paid sick days through reduced turnover, lower employee-replacement costs and higher productivity. We knew then that four years after San Francisco’s passage of their law, the number of small and large businesses in the city had grown, and in the midst of an economic downturn their economy was stronger than in the surrounding five counties, which had no paid sick leave. 

The Council took this all into consideration when passing the Seattle Paid Sick and Safe Leave legislation. We understood that employers might choose to increase their prices or trim their employees’ other benefits, even though the cost of paid leave to employers was small. However, the objective of the law was to minimize the effect on individual workers and the broader community resulting from the lack of paid sick leave. No employee should have to choose between going to work sick or getting paid, or choosing between caring for a sick child or losing a job. Sick workers staying at home, slows the spread of disease.

I’ve been promoting our sick leave program nationwide, via Local Progress, an organization that I founded. Since passing Seattle’s law, Portland, Ore. and New York City have passed their own, joining Connecticut, San Francisco, and Washington, D.C.  As I write this, from Jersey City to Tacoma, legislators are considering passage of new paid sick and safe leave laws.

Like San Francisco, a year after passage of our own paid sick and safe leave legislation, we lead the nation in job growth with only two California cities (one of them San Francisco) with unemployment rates falling more than Seattle's.  The bottom line is this:  Paid sick days protect public health, create a healthier workforce, help businesses cut costs and speeds our economy’s recovery. 

Another University of Washington study was released this summer. It was a “baseline study” done just before and just as the law went into effect. I am much more concerned with its findings than the so-called “unintended consequences” of the EPI study. The UW study found that about 40 percent of employers who were aware of the law had no plans to comply with it. This leads me to recognize the ongoing need for the City to enforce the labor standards that we have passed to protect our workforce.

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