Politics & Government

Tacoma council advances sick leave proposal

The Tacoma City Council voted 8-0 Tuesday to advance a proposal requiring employers to provide paid sick leave to all workers.

The proposal would require businesses located in the city to give workers at least three sick days a year. Employees would bank sick time at the rate of one hour per 40 hours worked. They could begin using the time off once it is earned but not before six months on the job.

One amendment, proposed by Mayor Marilyn Strickland, would allow employees to carry over up to 24 hours of unused sick time to the following year. An employee with carryover hours could accrue and use up to 40 hours of sick leave in his or her second year of employment.

Thirty-five people testified to the council on the topic Tuesday, most in favor of a city-mandated sick leave policy. Among the supporters was Lynda Foster, who said in one of her first jobs, she felt she was doing well at work. But then she got sick.

“I was told by my employer if I (took) time off to get better that I did not care about my job,” Foster said.

In recent months, dozens of people have lobbied the council in favor of a mandatory sick leave policy. Several small-business owners have objected, saying the policy would require too much paperwork or could put them out of business.

Casey Cowles, who said he owns in small business in Tacoma, said a citywide policy goes against the free market.

“The employees have the option of looking for a job that suits their needs better,” such as higher pay or better benefits, Cowles told the council, to jeers from the audience. Cowles said he thought the council did not include small businesses in the process of crafting the policy.

While many supporters told personal stories of going to work sick or being forced to choose between caring for a sick child and a paycheck, councilmen David Boe and Joe Lonergan said they wanted to rely on the reality in Tacoma rather than be swayed by anecdotes or data related to other cities or states.

“I am not paying Seattle wages, I am paying Tacoma wages,” Boe said, who owns a small architectural firm on Pacific Avenue. Boe, who had a performance as a member of the Puget Sound Revels on Tuesday night, was not present to vote on the amendments or policy.

Councilman Ryan Mello said he didn’t think businesses would be forced to close if required to offer sick leave to workers.

“Many of the same fears have been brought to bear on the issue of public health, safety and welfare,” he said, likening sick leave to past laws that mandated smoke-free restaurants and bars, nondiscrimination clauses for hiring and paid parking in downtown Tacoma.

The council had asked staff to research how much it would cost the city to enforce a citywide sick leave policy. Staff replied in a memo that enforcement could cost the city between $400,000 and $825,000 over the next two years — money the council did not consider when it approved the city’s 2015-2016 budget last week.

The council could take its final vote on a sick leave policy on Jan. 27.

The law would take effect one year from passage.