Politics & Government

Tacoma council to move forward with sick leave policy

The Tacoma City Council will move forward with a paid sick leave policy next week that would require businesses to provide at least three paid days off a year. A final vote could come in January.

A year ago, Mayor Marilyn Strickland said she did not want the city to take up the issue because it was a topic for the state or federal government to tackle.

“My position on this has changed ... I do not see the state acting on anything anytime soon,” Strickland said during a Tuesday meeting.

A first reading of the ordinance, a step required before a final vote can be held, is set for next week.

If the council approves the measure, businesses would have to start providing sick leave one year later. The city would require employers to give workers one hour of sick leave per 40 hours worked up to three sick days a year.

“That was not a number that was pulled out of the sky or out of a hat,” Strickland said.

She said the number came from a San Francisco report that said workers on average used three days of paid sick leave per year. San Francisco also requires employers to provide sick leave.

The council’s first joint review of the proposal came during its biweekly agenda-setting meeting Tuesday afternoon. People packed the meeting room and spilled into the hallway to hear the 90-minute discussion. Many held signs that said “More than 3 for 253.”

“I clearly think we need more than three days,” said Councilman Ryan Mello, who said the policy should not be based on the average days workers tend to use. Some workers will need more days off to help recover from illness or care for family members.

Without a city policy, he said, “Some businesses would not offer it, ever.”

Some council members said Tacoma is not San Francisco, nor is it Seattle, another city that recently passed a mandatory sick leave policy.

“We are not in the same sphere that many of these other jurisdictions are, which have a market that supports a greater cost of business,” Councilman David Boe said. “We are 62 percent of the market of Seattle.”

Boe and others said they wanted to know how much enforcing the proposed law will cost the city.

Under the proposal, businesses will have to tell the city when renewing business licenses that they have a sick leave policy for employees. Strickland said the council will talk about whether to require just those companies located in Tacoma to provide sick leave to their workers, or to extend the policy to companies who don’t have a presence in the city but send workers to jobs here.

Councilwoman Lauren Walker said the city and its residents have been talking about paid sick leave for the better part of two years. While this law would establish minimum standards that employers must follow, she said it does not prevent them from offering employees more generous amounts of sick leave.

Much of the discussion centered on the struggle small business owners might face to comply with the law. But Mello said the problem is not the small businesses.

“I think we have a fantastic small business community,” Mello said. “...there are quite a few Fortune 50 and Fortune 100 businesses that operate in Tacoma that do not offer this leave, and there are thousands of workers (not covered).”

The requirement for paid sick leave, he said, is really aimed at those large businesses that “put a strong burden on our service fabric and the services that we provide as a government.”

Gregory Christopher, a pastor at Shiloh Baptist Church, said the community needs to have a conversation about paid sick leave.

“Even though it’s better than nothing, three days is not enough,” he said.

There were times when he was a child when his mother had to choose between staying home to care for sick children or going to work.

“It was a matter of having a roof over our head,” Christopher said after the meeting.

More than a dozen people showed up at the council’s business meeting later Tuesday to speak about sick leave.

Karen Rich, who owns a business in south Tacoma with her husband Jim, said her company offers sick leave. But she fears the pressures on small business will be too much to bear for some entrepreneurs.

“You are going to be alienating a lot of small businesses in Tacoma who can’t afford it,” she said.