Christine Stancliff, a longtime janitor at Portland International Airport, called in sick last January when she thought she had a stomach flu, but her boss made her come to work anyway.
Stancliff wound up working four days while unable to hold down food — until a supervisor sent her home after she vomited in the employee break room garbage can.
Stancliff went to Kaiser, where she was diagnosed with kidney damage. Her subsequent stay in the hospital cost her two days’ pay, Stancliff says, “so I had to cut down on my groceries and my insulin.”
After 11 years’ work for an airport contractor, Stancliff doesn’t get paid sick days. And she’s not the exception.
More than 40 percent of private sector employees in the Portland area lack paid sick days, says Andrea Paluso, executive director of Family Forward Oregon. The advocacy group, launched a few years ago by Paluso and other activist Portland moms, is spearheading a campaign for a city ordinance requiring every Portland employer to provide paid sick leave for their workers. It’s modeled after one passed by San Francisco voters in 2006, and similar to ones passed by Seattle and other cities.
Portlanders shouldn’t have to choose between going to work sick or getting fired, Paluso says, or sending sick children to school because they can’t afford the lost pay. “If people don’t have time off to go to the doctor, they don’t have access to health care in the traditional sense,” she says.
Family Forward Oregon and allies in the labor movement have been building a case for the ordinance for several months, knocking on thousands of doors to collect letters of support and personal stories like Stancliff’s. They expect to bring a proposal soon to the City Council, Paluso says, and hope to get it passed this year, before a new council takes office.
City Commissioner Amanda Fritz has been leading the charge at City Hall, convening a group of labor, business and community leaders to help fashion a proposed ordinance.
“As a nurse, obviously I want people to stay home when they’re sick,” Fritz says. Then they’ll get better sooner, she says, and won’t expose people on the bus or at their workplace to their illness.
Fritz says there’s a sensitivity at City Hall about rushing into a new policy after the council provoked citizen outrage for ramming through a controversial water fluoridation ordinance last month. But Fritz and Paluso say every member of the council appears interested in the paid sick leave idea.
Leaders of Family Forward Oregon met with Mayor Sam Adams on Tuesday, and Fritz says the mayor then asked her and Commissioner Dan Saltzman to help prepare a proposal for council consideration. Adams also wants the issue to come before the council before the end of the year, Fritz says.
“We’re going to do a thorough public process,” Fritz promises, “not something that comes to City Council next week.”
Given its political makeup, the Oregon Legislature is not likely to pass a state law requiring paid sick leave, Paluso says. But the city of Portland has the authority to pass an ordinance affecting employers in the city, so the campaign decided that’s a good place to start.
The movement for paid sick leave has been growing since San Francisco restaurant workers led a successful 2006 initiative campaign. Since then, Seattle, Washington D.C., and the state of Connecticut have required paid sick leave, and campaigns are under way in other cities.
When canvassers from the Oregon Working Families Party and Working America, a community organizing arm of the AFL-CIO, went door-to-door this summer, they found many Portlanders were surprised to learn that paid sick leave isn’t required by law. It is in 145 other nations, Paluso says.
A study by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research found that the Portland area was typical of the nation when it comes to workers without paid sick leave, Paluso says. The study found that 80 percent of low-wage workers lack paid sick days. It’s common in certain industries, such as in restaurants, day care, home health care, food service, construction and manufacturing. In the Portland area, 55 percent of Latinos lack paid sick days, the highest of any ethnic group.
Even some unionized jobs lack the kind of sick pay others take for granted. Workers at Fred Meyer and Safeway, for example, don’t qualify for sick pay until their third day off. So there’s a disincentive to take time off unless they think they’ll be off more than two work days, Fritz says, “which makes absolutely no sense from a public health perspective.”
A recently signed city contract with the Service Employees International Union grants the janitors who clean City Hall one paid sick day a year, Fritz notes — the first time they’ve gotten any paid sick leave.
The Oregon Restaurant and Lodging Association opposes paid sick leave mandates, says Bill Perry, the trade group’s chief lobbyist. “This is not something employees are asking for,” Perry says, and it would make it harder for restaurants to afford health benefits.
The Portland Business Alliance is waiting to see what the campaign proposes, says spokeswoman Megan Doern, but understands that paid sick leave will be a significant issue for small businesses
The Portland campaign hasn’t settled yet on how many days of sick leave might be required.
For employers of office workers, mandating sick pay may not be a big deal if the sick worker isn’t replaced and simply makes up lost time when they return. But if workers are granted five days sick pay, and they must be replaced, that can be costly. One week equals about 2 percent of their annual wages. And drafting replacement workers sometimes involves having to pay overtime, says Ben Meyer, co-owner of the Grain & Gristle, a Northeast Portland restaurant.
In San Francisco, a study by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research found the average worker is taking three sick days a year now. In the restaurant industry, it’s about two days — shorter because many of those workers can’t make up for lost tips, and tend to return to work sooner.
Paluso and other proponents of paid sick leave point out that it provides many benefits to employers as well as employees. For example, it can improve worker retention, job satisfaction and productivity.
Meyer has worked in the restaurant industry for 22 years, much of the time without getting any paid sick leave. “Generally, it’s unheard of,” he says, except for managers and top chefs.
“The cook may be snotty; they may be half-coughing; they just muscle through it,” Meyer says. “It’s just a reality in restaurants; people work when they shouldn’t all the time.”
But Meyer, who also serves as chef and operations manager at Grain & Gristle, says he’s offering health insurance to his employees, and realizes they’ll need paid sick days to assure they’ll use it. So starting in January, his servers and kitchen staff will begin accruing paid sick days, at the rate of one week a year for full-time employees.
“Honestly, I think it’s a basic right,” he says.