Paid Sick Time: Register Guard Guest Opinion

 Paid Sick Time Is Long Overdue.

Eugene City Councilor Claire Syrett

Last year it came to my and Councilor Zelenka’s attention that over 25,000 people working in Eugene’s private sector are working without access to a single paid sick day from work.  That’s true of 78% of people working at the lowest end of the pay scale (but for only 20% of those working at the highest). In addition, many have no legal protection from being fired for missing work if they get sick or have to stay home to care for a sick child. This means that when illness strikes, as it inevitably does for every one of us, too many of our friends and neighbors face the terrible choice of deciding  whether they can afford to stay home to recover – or whether they’ll be disciplined or fired for doing so. Our response was to co-sponsor a council work session to consider an ordinance to create protected earned paid sick time for all workers in Eugene.

Since we began this conversation, we have heard from Eugenians who have to work when they are sick to avoid losing critical pay - or their job; high school students who miss school to care for younger siblings when they get sick because their parents cannot; and from local public health professionals who explain that a lack of paid sick time contributes to the spread of disease at work and school increasing health care costs for all of us. 

But this is not only a public health issue; it’s also an issue of basic economic fairness.  Working hard and playing by the rules should earn you not just an hourly wage.  It should afford you the dignity that comes from being able to both provide for your family and to care for them when they need you.

Despite the clear need for a paid sick time standard in Eugene, we are not undertaking the process of developing one lightly.  We are taking the time needed to do a thoughtful and thorough job while taking in to consideration all points of view. We have met and will continue to meet with concerned business owners, attended community forums on the topic, and hosted four productive task force meetings with local employers and representatives of the Eugene Chamber of Commerce expressly to hear concerns and ideas for how to address them. We have scheduled seven formal work sessions for the Council to discuss this topic, and will have heard public comment on the issue – from many perspectives - at nearly all of our council meetings over the course of this process. Finally, we are scheduled to hold a public hearing on a draft ordinance on July 21st to hear from the community.

We understand that there are those who will not support this proposal, and we are listening to their concerns and are factoring them into our considerations about how to move ahead.  At the same time more than 3,200 people around our city have signed letters supporting paid sick time for Eugene and almost 50 local businesses have endorsed the proposal. A recent poll shows that 75% of Eugenians support the Council adopting an earned sick leave policy. 

Certainly there are employers who worry that the additional cost of providing earned paid sick time will be to be a hard one to bear.  And while we know that employers without current earned paid sick time standards will incur some additional cost, experience in other cities with similar laws show the overall cost to business to be small, less than 1% of payroll on average. On balance the benefit to workers, business, and the wider community in terms of increased worker productivity from not working when sick, not spreading illness in the workplace, as well as the economic benefit of not missing a day’s wages when ill, is worth the small additional cost in payroll. We as consumers can absorb that small additional cost which is now borne fully and unfairly by individual low wage workers and their families.

Councilor Zelenka and I are committed to crafting an earned paid sick leave ordinance that works for Eugene workers and employers. We have the benefit of being able to learn from the experience of a number of other cities that have enacted sick time laws before us; Portland in January of this year, San Francisco 8 years ago, Washington DC 6 years ago, and Seattle a year and a half ago.  We look forward to continuing to engage workers and employers as well as our fellow councilors in this process with the goal of passing a smart and sound public policy that protects public health and improves the lives of working families.  Working together we can create a winning policy that will improve the quality of life in Eugene.

Councilor Claire Syrett

Published in the Register Guard June 9, 2014