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Some counties argued it was an unfunded state mandate, but justices say it's not a public program.

COURTESY OREGON JUDICIAL DEPARTMENT - Oregon Supreme Court justices. Seated from left: Thomas Balmer, Chief Justice Martha Walters, Lynn Nakamoto, Meagan Flynn. Standing: Rebecca Duncan, Adrienne Nelson, Chris Garrett. The court upheld Oregon's paid sick-leave law in a decision announced Thursday, April 23.
The Oregon Supreme Court has upheld the state's requirement for paid sick leave despite an argument by some counties that they are not subject to it.

The decision was praised Thursday, April 23, by Labor Commissioner Val Hoyle, whose Bureau of Labor and Industries oversees the law. She was one of the two state officials named in the lawsuit.

"All Oregon workers deserve protected sick time," Hoyle said. "Our families and communities benefit when workers can take time off if they're sick or need to care for someone else."

The Legislature passed the law in 2015, when Hoyle was House majority leader. It applies to employers of 10 or more workers — six or more in Portland, where an ordinance took effect the previous year — and requires them to provide 40 hours of paid sick leave to full-time workers. For employers with fewer than 10 workers, the law requires 40 hours of unpaid sick leave.

Leave can be used by employees when they or family members are sick or need to visit a doctor, or if they have children whose schools were closed because of a public health emergency.

Linn, Douglas and Yamhill counties sued Hoyle and Gov. Kate Brown in 2016. They argued that the requirement for paid sick leave amounted to an unfunded state mandate on local governments. A 1996 constitutional amendment, made permanent in 2000, compels the state to pay local governments for new programs or increased levels of service for existing programs.

A Linn County judge initially sided with nine counties that joined in the lawsuit, then excluded six of them for not meeting a threshold, leaving just the three original counties. But the Oregon Court of Appeals in 2019 reversed the decision by Judge Daniel Murphy, and the Supreme Court agreed in a unanimous decision.

Justice Thomas Balmer, writing for the high court, said the law affects employee benefits. But he said it is not a new program that provides services to the public, and subject to the requirement for state government to pay most of the bill.

He wrote:

"Virtually every example of the kind of law that the (1996 and 2000) measures were intended to cover was of a state law imposing requirements on local government to provide particular services to the public, such as elections, taxation, and utility services."

Balmer said that while the paid sick-leave law is a change in state policy, it is not a program in itself.

"Whether a policy is a 'program' is not determined by the intention behind the policy, but rather by the type of local government action that the policy requires," he wrote. "Those required administrative actions do not mean that the paid sick leave law is a new 'program' of services to persons, government agencies or to the public generally."

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