A new approach to paid sick leave

The paid-sick-leave proposal currently being debated in Seattle is an important part of sustainable neighborhoods. We need to do it without jeopardizing critical small businesses. A "sick bank" could be worth close study.

Crosscut archive image.

Street Bean Espresso

The paid-sick-leave proposal currently being debated in Seattle is an important part of sustainable neighborhoods. We need to do it without jeopardizing critical small businesses. A "sick bank" could be worth close study.

A local group called the Reasonable Employment And Legislation or REAL coalition is raising alarms about the paid-sick-leave proposal being considered by the Seattle City Council. Requiring businesses to pay their employees for sick time, they say, “would [be] disastrous for local business.” The REAL coalition’s suggestion to study the proposal further has merit.

I don’t like the Chicken Little routine that some local business leaders are running about the paid sick leave proposal. Too often business claims the sky is falling whenever reasonable regulations are proposed. The state’s smoking ban, for example, was supposed to bankrupt local bars and restaurants. It didn’t happen.

This is different from the smoking ban, however. Local bar owners and restaurateurs are among our city’s biggest risk takers when it comes to starting a new business. Profit margins are small, regulations high, and slight shifts in the economy or customer preference can mean serious hardship and even closure. But bars and restaurants provide our city with what it needs most: walkable, livable neighborhoods. Density without these businesses doesn’t work. Density provides local business customers and small, start-up retail businesses of all kinds the help a neighborhood needs to thrive. But it isn’t a sure thing. Adding a requirement that a worker be paid when not actually working could be the last straw for a small business.

On the other hand, the idea of paid sick leave, especially in the hospitality industry (bars, restaurants, and hotels), is important. These workers face the biggest hurdles when they are sick or injured, and they are the most dependent on being physically at work to make ends meet. Wait staff and bartenders rely on tips to make most of their money. Workers that clean hotel rooms and work in maintenance in hotels face the greatest risk for workplace injury. Some of these workers have a union, UNITE HERE, on their side, but most don’t. So getting sick or injured can mean no money, unemployment, and few options.

One answer could be in pooling resources to provide a sick bank for hospitality and retail workers. The bank could be managed by a union like UNITE HERE or by the City. The way a sick bank would work would be through a payroll deduction from workers along with a matching contribution from employers that would be pooled. When a worker got sick, her pay would come from the bank. Additional contributions to the bank could be made by customers and patrons, say in the tip line of the receipt at a restaurant or bar. It's not clear such an idea would work, which is why a study of the
appoach makes sense.

Business groups would likely howl: “The cost to administer this would be onerous!” and “what happens when the bank runs out?”  Maybe a sick bank would be too hard to administer. On the other hand employers would benefit from sharing the costs to keep a good worker on the job, rather than losing them to illness that gets worse without leave.

The larger issue is that we need to invest in building and preserving our neighborhoods. Part of that is making land use decisions that promote good density. Density is good for business because it concentrates a reliable customer base for goods and services. Walkable neighborhoods mean less dependence on expensive parking spots, and transit allows efficient movement by customers all over the city. That much is familiar in these discussions.

But we also need to invest in people as well as the built environment, and that means supporting workers and small, local businesses. A sick bank would get us the best parts of this idea at a reduced cost to business and workers, and both could start working together across the city.

There is another way paid leave and a sick bank can support a sustainable city. We often hear about how housing in dense neighborhoods is too expensive. Most people are coming around to the idea that while the monthly rent on a home in dense neighborhood might be more than in sprawl, other costs savings — like not having to drive — can more than of set the additional cost .Increasing the supply of housing would help reduce those costs too. The supply side of housing affordability is important. More housing improves the chance that prices will go down because the housing supply will start to meet or exceed demand.

Part of the affordability problem is also on the demand side. Putting more money in workers pockets means they can afford to live in the city. A program of paid sick live is a crucial part of increasing demand for housing and other goods and services in the city. If workers get sick, they can get better using sick leave and in the process know they will be able to keep their jobs. That job security can boost their confidence so they’ll spend more money and make investments in their future here in Seattle — including choosing to live here. If businesses hire good workers, they can know they’ll be able to keep them for the long term, which is good for business.

All of these are among the ways we need to figure out how to make working and living in Seattle more sustainable. Paid sick live for the hardest working and most vulnerable workers is an essential investment in a sustainable city. Taking the time to do it right makes sense.


Please support independent local news for all.

We rely on donations from readers like you to sustain Crosscut's in-depth reporting on issues critical to the PNW.