By Tiffany Ran
Northwest Asian Weekly
There were those who simply couldn’t miss a paycheck. So when they heard about the H1N1 virus, when they contracted it, and when their family members contracted it, they went to work, as usual.
“Stay home when you’re sick,” states a public health message, which goes unheeded by four in 10 workers in fields of food safety and public health, including restaurant, grocery, and health care workers who are employed in an estimated 190,000 jobs that do not provide paid sick leave, according to a May 2011 report from the Economic Opportunity Institute (EOI). Such reports from doctors, labor unions, and the community inspired EOI and concerned organizations to discuss possible solutions. With hopes of establishing a measure for paid sick leave, EOI founded the Seattle Coalition for a Healthy Workforce, which incudes organizations like Puget Sound Alliance for Retired Americans, Washington Community Action Network, UFCW 21, and Legal Voice and 70 others, to take on the measure.
Finding common ground
A search for possible solutions set the coalition’s sights on the mandatory paid leave ordinance passed in San Francisco in 2007. The San Francisco measure was passed by voter initiative, while the legislation for Seattle proposed by the initiative would be voted on by city council.
Faced with some empty storefronts and a business community hit hard by the recent downturn in the economy, Don Blakeney, executive director of the Chinatown-International District Business Improvement Area (CIDBIA), remained vigilant. He estimates that a third of the International District, the restaurants — cash flow businesses with high operating costs — would be highly impacted if required to offer paid sick leave.
“I don’t know if it’s the place of the city council to be doing this. I think it’s a bold move,” said Blakeney. “It might be the difference between someone having a job and someone not. I just don’t know.”
Similar concerns prompted the Seattle Coalition for a Healthy Workforce to open the table for further discussion, inviting local stakeholders, small businesses, and local commerce, including some members of the Seattle Chamber of Commerce who’ve expressed disapproval over the initial draft of the measure.
Participants then took a red pen to the draft, re-writing a measure that also satisfies EOI’s basic guidelines: Nobody should have to go to work sick, nobody should have to lose income if they stay home sick, and it must be something that works for the businesses in Seattle. The new draft, different from the San Francisco ordinance, became the Common Ground proposal. The proposal was the first of its kind in that supporting businesses poured over the policy and helped draft the measure, which was voted on first by Seattle City Council’s Housing, Human Services, Health, and Culture Committee before being considered by the full city council.
A straw on the camel’s back
If I-miun Liu’s employees at Oasis Tea Zone were sick or perhaps wanted to attend a party or meet a friend, they called other teammates to cover their shift. They made the arrangements, filled out the form, and, minus any pressing concerns, no questions were asked. Business went on as usual.
When the group of small businesses assembled for the Common Ground proposal, shift swapping was an issue that was discussed. Among the many practices that differed between restaurants and many small businesses, shift swapping provided flexibility for employees, who often made more in tips than in hourly wages. Shift swapping allowed employees another chance to make up for the tips they lost.
The practice was woven into the Common Ground proposal.
The proposal included safeguards, such as an exemption for micro-businesses, businesses with fewer than four employees. Employees must also work a minimum of 120 hours before they’re eligible for sick leave and wait six months before they’re able to take paid sick leave. The new proposal, sponsored by councilmember Nick Licata, was voted on by the Seattle City Council’s Housing, Human Services, Health, and Culture Committee, and passed with four ‘yes’ votes.
However, Council President Richard Conlin abstained from the voting, citing issues of concern including the compromise to employers that restaurant workers who trade shifts would lose their right to sick leave in proportion to those shifts. Liu, who operates an Oasis Tea Zone in the International District and another in the University District, is also skeptical, warning that any additional costs to already struggling businesses could be the straw that breaks the camel’s back, as loss of a business also means loss of jobs for many employees.
“[Mandatory paid sick leave] is not a negative thing. It’s just with all that’s going on with the economy, the increase of taxes, food costs gone up in crazy amounts, and websites like Groupon that require more discounts, the margins for profit is less and less. If you add on more costs, there’s going to be a breaking point,” said Liu.
“There are so many things that lawmakers don’t see, and they’ll say, ‘Well, it’s just one more thing we’re going to add on,’ but that one more thing can make or break a lot of businesses already struggling right now.”
Anthony Anton, president of the Washington Restaurant Association, cited similar concerns in addressing the measure with PubliCola, also stating that foodborne illness outbreaks have declined steadily in the last 10 years. Despite there being members of local commerce in the Common Ground talks, George Allen, spokesperson for the Greater Seattle Chamber of Commerce, was reluctant to support the measure.
“With the rapid drop in the Dow, a rekindling of concern over the world economy, and deeper cuts in the state budget, we must be mindful that Seattle employers are not immune to larger economic forces. We must be very, very careful and balanced when considering mandates that increase costs and regulations on our employers at this time,” said Allen in a statement.
A missing voice
Based on the measure, paid sick time can be taken not just for an employee’s illness or injury, but also for the care of a family member. Advocates believe that low-income workers, women, people of color, and immigrants who are often in jobs without paid sick leave will most benefit from the measure. The measure also includes paid safe time, in the case that the employee’s business is exposed to toxins or infection and for reasons of sexual assault, domestic violence, or stalking. The latter stemmed from the concerns of Legal Voice, a legal advocacy firm focused on women’s issues, hat has been involved with shaping the measure since the beginning.
Yet, signs that businesses in the International District were embracing or refuting the measure have been minimal.
“Those who have been in the International District for some time are more old school and traditional. It’s hard to get everyone on one page for one agenda. Everyone has their own priorities,” said Liu.
“Businesses tend to get tied up in their day-to-day operations, but I wish that there would be more of a voice, not just for small businesses, but also for ethnic or culturally diverse kinds of businesses. But a lot of those businesses are so understaffed or don’t understand the language well enough. They don’t have the time or resources to get involved in that kind of stuff. So it becomes that the only people who can go out for these kinds of things are the somewhat larger businesses.”
Out of a list of small businesses owners supporting the measure, including Jody Hall of Cupcake Royale and Verite Coffee, Dave Meinert of the 5 Point Café, and Makini Howell of Plum Bistro, none are from businesses in the International District. Salvadorean Bakery remains the only ethnic business on a list of supporters offered by the Seattle Coalition for a Healthy Workforce.
Blakeney suspects that there is a lack of awareness in the community about the measure. CIDBIA and the Seattle Chinatown International District Preservation and Development Authority (SCIDpda) are working together to compile information on the measure, and it could affect local businesses and employees. The measure, supported by the Asian Counseling and Referral Service and the Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance, was passed 8–1 by the city council on Sept. 12.
The Coalition for a Healthy Tacoma is now working with the city council to enact a similar measure.
The Seattle law comes into effect in September 2012. Per the requirements of the law, the Seattle City Auditor’s Office and the Office for Civil Rights will conduct an independent audit of the impact of the law on businesses after it has been in effect for a year. (end)
Tiffany Ran can be reached at email@example.com.