Paid sick leave? Great idea – but not as City Council mandate

The Tacoma City Council appears on the brink of ordering the city’s employers to provide their workers with paid sick leave. This is a good argument against a full-time council – which would be even more isolated from the realities of keeping a low-margin business alive.

To their credit, most council members are resisting the idea of mandating five paid sick days a year. The majority seems to be settling on three, despite pressure from some advocacy groups.

This issue lends itself easily to moral posturing. Opponents of a mandate can be painted as heartless souls who want to force single mothers to drag themselves to work with the flu – and then infect customers in the bargain.

But the question isn’t whether people should work when they are acutely ill – they shouldn’t. The question is whether a city ought to dictate the benefits of small employers. Especially a city – like Tacoma – with high taxes and a weak business sector.

People who run businesses deserve some credit for compassion and common sense. Not many are eager to see their employees bring viruses to work and infect everyone in sight. Many who have no formal sick leave policy will tell workers to stay home – with pay – when they come down with something bad.

In some industries – restaurants, for example – workers handle sickness by swapping shifts among themselves. In the absence of a law, people actually do improvise solutions.

Small employers are experts at improvising. With benefits, they have choices: higher pay, vacation, health care subsidies, flexible schedules, bonuses, etc. They tend to tailor their benefits to fit the circumstances of their business and the needs of their employees.

Faced with a one-size-fits-all mandate, some will inevitably absorb the cost by trimming perks. An employer who currently provides paid vacation days, for example, can simply redefine vacation time as sick time.

Advocates of the mandate point to Seattle’s sick leave ordinance, in force since 2012, as an unqualified success that would be replicated in Tacoma. In April, a University of Washington team hired by the City of Seattle produced a gushing review. For example, only 6.4 percent of the employers they surveyed said they cut workers’ pay raises or bonuses. Only 5.3 percent said they cut vacation time. Pretty good, unless you happen to be one of those who lost pay or vacation.

Seattle, however, is a tiger economy right now. Its tech-driven dynamism could be offsetting the effects of its demands on private businesses. Tacoma’s private sector has no such tail wind.

The biggest problem with the Seattle comparison, though, can be found in an auditor’s report released in October: The City of Seattle is not enforcing its mandate. It sends warning letters to businesses, but it does not fine them when they ignore the warnings. If the city were cracking down, it’s a good bet that more workers would be losing shifts, raises or vacation.

On the Tacoma City Council, David Boe has asked uncomfortable questions about enforcement costs. He’s also offered a thoughtful alternative to a mandate: Certifying a business as a “healthy Tacoma company” if it provides paid sick leave – but not fining it if it doesn’t.

The healthiest Tacoma companies of all, of course, are the ones that don’t leave the city, curb their wages, cut hours or lay off people. There will be fewer of those if the City Council decides it knows what’s best for them and their employees.