Sick leave testimony raises Olympia stakes

The struggles for control in the Legislature draw in workers and employers for arguments about the opportunity to take time off. A classic standoff could be developing.
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Grocery store worker Kyong Barry of Algona testifies in favor of paid sick leave during a state legislative hearing.

The struggles for control in the Legislature draw in workers and employers for arguments about the opportunity to take time off. A classic standoff could be developing.

Jeanette Randal lives in Seattle, but works as a checker at a Safeway in Seatac.

Last year, Seattle's city council passed a law requiring paid sick leave to be provided by any company with five or more employees — with the amount of actual leave depending on the size of the business.

Randal does not get that sick leave working in Seatac, and must wait for her third day of illness before her company's sick leave kicks in.

Raising the tensions in the growing battle between Olympia's Democrats and Republicans over economic issues, Randal and many others testified Tuesday for a statewide sick leave law — similar to Seattle's — before the Washington House's Labor Committee. Labor groups and business interests lined up on opposite sides of this bill introduced by Rep. Laurie Jinkins, D-Tacoma, and a family medical leave act expansion introduced by Rep. Tami Green, D-Lakewood. Green's bill will likely collide with a Senate bill by Sen. John Braun, R-Centralia, which would eliminate the family leave act. More than 100 people — mostly workers supporting both bills — attended the hearings on the two.

On the sick leave bill, Randal and other union rank-and-file workers said many employees are stuck with the choice of working sick on the job or losing wages if they stay home to get well. The same dilemma surfaces when their kids get sick.

"It's sad that we have to make the choice," said Albertsons employee Kyong Barry of Algona.

Usually, people are sick for one or two days, while their corporate sick leaves don't take effect until the third day of illness, making the company leaves moot, several contended.

Officials from the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce, Association of Washington Business, Association of General Contractors of Washington, the Independent Business Association, Washington Policy Center and the Washington Restaurant Association testified against the bill. They argued that a mandatory state sick leave system would be an administrative headache and would siphon money away from other employees' benefits, they said.

"This bill is a hidden head tax on employees ... It's an unfunded liability," said Kris Tefft, representing the AWB.

"Our restaurants cannot afford this," said Josh McDonald, representing the Washington Restaurants Association.

But Seattle businesswoman, Makini Howell, whose food business grew from 26 to 36 employees with the Seattle sick leave law in effect, countered that the sick leave act did not stop her firm from growing. "We need to look at the humane aspects of our workers. You'll probably hear doomsday predictions from the big business lobbyists. That's not true," Howell said.

Meanwhile, business and labor also split on Green's family medical leave expansion bill as they did last week on Braun's bill to shut down the program. 

Sen. Karen Keiser, D-Kent, got the original act passed in 2007, which would provide parents of newborn and newly adopted children with up to five weeks of paid leave starting in 2015. Implementation was delayed because of a lack of money to manage the program — $12 to $13 million to start up and $5 million annually, Keiser said. The leaves of absence themselves would be funded through a tiny payroll deduction, she said.

However, Braun, R-Centralia, submitted a bill to repeal the 2007 act because it was never funded.

Recently, Green and Keiser introduced new bills in each chamber aimed at expanding the Family Medical Leave Act to provide for up to 12 weeks of leave to care for a newborn or newly adopted child or a sick family member. It would also provide two-thirds of usual weekly pay up to a maximum of $1,000 a week. The premiums would be shared by employers and employees and would cost, according to her calculations, roughly $1 a week for an employee salaried at $50,000 annually. Workers would become eligible after paying premiums for 680 hours of work.

"This is the kind of bill that struggling families need," Green said.

Don Orange, who employs four men with a $220,00 annual payroll at a Vancouver auto shop, said, "This bill is just good common sense for Washington. ... One of my employees could be using this right now. We are our brothers' keepers." He said he calculated that the bill would cost his shop $20 a month, compared to $250 a week in credit card swipe fees.

Gary Smith of the Independent Business Association countered: "Most small businesses cannot afford this piece of legislation. ... Higher employment costs actually kill jobs."

When asked about the collision of Green's bill, likely to the pass the House, and Braun's bill, likely to be the Senate version, Keiser said: "We have a classic possibility for gridlock."

For exclusive coverage of the state Legislature, check out Crosscut's Olympia 2013 page.


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About the Authors & Contributors

John Stang

John Stang

John Stang is a freelance writer who often covers state government and the environment. He can be reached on email at and on Twitter at @johnstang_8