Council support slips as firms try to avoid patchwork of rules

Starting in January, the wait staff and kitchen workers at Northeast Portland’s Grain & Gristle restaurant will get paid when they’re too sick to work.

But other Portlanders who lack paid sick leave — about 40 percent of the private sector workforce — will have to wait.

A coalition pushing a city ordinance requiring paid sick leave by all Portland employers hoped to get it passed before a new City Council takes office in January. But that appears unlikely, and there’s some who want to take the idea to the Oregon Legislature first, after voters granted Democrats majorities in both chambers.

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT - Employees at the Northeast Portland restaurant Grain and Gristle will be accruing sick pay as of Jan. 1, implemented by the owners. City Commissioner Amanda Fritz, who is leading the charge at City Hall for paid sick leave, says she hopes to have a proposed draft ready for public review early next month and have a City Council vote by late January.

But there still are two ways to go, Fritz says. One is to pass a city ordinance, as done in San Francisco and Seattle, two of the cities leading the way nationally on the issue. The other option is to pass a resolution saying the city will act if the Legislature doesn’t pass a statewide law in the 2013 session.

A similar strategy was used when the city first took up banning large single-use plastic bags in grocery stores.

Supporters of a paid sick leave mandate all agree there should be a statewide law eventually. “The question is how we get there,” Fritz says. “That decision has not been made.”

City Commissioner Dan Saltzman, who had worked with Fritz on a potential city ordinance, says he’s changed his mind on the best way to accomplish the goal.

“My position at this point is that with a newly Democratic House in Salem and a Democratic Senate and Democratic governor, we ought to take a shot at having all 40 percent of workers who don’t have sick leave have a shot at it,” Saltzman says. “I’m willing to look at a citywide solution only (if) the statewide approach fails.”

Saltzman also fears a city measure might pose a disincentive for a business to locate in Portland, among other concerns.

One key player, Joe Gilliam, president of the Northwest Grocery Association, says his organization expects a sick pay rule to be approved, but it would like a statewide approach, not a patchwork of local ordinances.

“I think it’s coming in some form,” Gilliam says of a paid sick leave mandate. “I think there’s a workable situation here to have a basic minimum” paid sick leave benefit statewide.

Gilliam also says he’s going to try to come up with a proposal that his industry can support.

But a coalition of labor organizations and groups representing women’s and minority issues that has rallied around the issue all year figure Portland offers the best chance of sparking a successful movement for paid sick leave in Oregon.

“There’s no reason for cities to hold off and wait for the state to act on this,” says Andrea Paluso, executive director of Family Forward Oregon.

It could take awhile to get the issue adopted at the Legislature, Paluso says. Even though Democrats are set to have a commanding 34 to 26 advantage over Republicans in the House after being tied 30-30 the past two years, “We still have the same Senate,” she says.

Democrats control the Senate by a slim 16 to 14 margin over Republicans. And in Salem, business lobbies, including the powerful restaurant and grocery trade groups, have much more political clout than they do at Portland City Hall.

Gilliam agrees that it’s harder to get measures passed in the Legislature, but figures the legislative process can result in a more balanced proposal.

Senate Majority Leader Diane Rosenbaum, D-Portland, has been a leading advocate for family leave and worker rights in Oregon. She doesn’t think the city should drop its effort, though she expects the issue also will be pursued in this year’s legislative session.

“I’m very supportive of Portland’s efforts and (Fritz’s) efforts to find a version that would work for the city of Portland,” Rosenbaum says. “We can look to examples around the country where it’s been working at a local level and I think that’s a great precedent for Portland.”

Only one state, Connecticut, has followed the lead of progressive-led cities in passing a statewide paid leave proposal. Rosenbaum hopes Oregon will join it. “I think there will be eventually a way to find a compromise that works for Oregon,” she says.

Compliance issues

Mayor-elect Charlie Hales endorsed paid sick leave as a city priority on the campaign trail. “This is one of those cases where we as a city ought to lead, rather than wait for higher authorities like the state government or federal government to get there first,” he said at a mayoral candidate’s debate hosted by Paluso’s group.

Now Hales says he wants to check with legislative leaders before deciding what’s best.

“I think the question is how do we make sure we get this done,” he says, “and get the state to take up this question.”

There’s also certain to be a major debate on terms of any ordinance the city might adopt. Saltzman says he thinks small businesses, somewhere in the neighborhood of five to 10 employees, should be exempted. “There’s a lot of compliance and paperwork issues that people haven’t thought about,” Saltzman says.

Paluso has insisted that all employers get covered, no matter the size. They’re all covered by the state minimum wage law, she notes.

The Seattle ordinance, Gilliams says, is more than 200 pages long, and requires compliance even by trucking companies that pass through the city but don’t stop along the way. He also doesn’t think employers that bargain labor contracts with unions should be affected by an ordinance. There could be unintended consequences, Gilliams says, with employers forced to retract other benefits to compensate for the new ones.

But Fritz says the paid sick leave granted in union contracts for area Fred Meyer and Safeway stores, where workers don’t get any sick leave until their third day off work, is ill-advised.

“What they have bargained doesn’t make sense,” says Fritz, a former nurse.

Gilliam says that policy was adopted because some workers were abusing paid sick leave policies and taking off to go skiing or hunting.

Saltzman also is concerned the group working on the proposed ordinance doesn’t broadly represent employers. Fritz concedes that it’s largely made up of advocates, and promises to seek more input from business once her proposal is released.

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