Spokane Journal of Business

City of Spokane to start working out particulars of sick-leave mandate

Council doesn’t know yet how law will be enforced

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-—Kevin Blocker
Main Market Co-op general manager Megan White says the organic grocery outlet has offered paid leave to its employees since opening in 2010 and supports the city’s sick leave provision.

Spokane City Council President Ben Stuckart has asked the mayor’s office to pick two advisers from his staff to join two, yet-to-be-named city council members to study how Spokane will enforce the earned safe and sick leave policy scheduled to take effect on Jan. 1, 2017.

Stuckart also is calling for the creation of another working group involving business leaders and city staff to look at how to implement the policy, a process that will involve educating local employers about the policy as it is further developed.

“In this year’s budget, money was specifically set aside for communication and public education surrounding this,” Stuckart says.

For the second working group, Stuckart would like to see a representative from the Washington Restaurant Association, Greater Spokane Incorporated, Downtown Spokane Partnership, Spokane Alliance, and a member each from the city council and city administration.

Says Stuckart of the reason behind the proposal, “Nobody should be put in a position of having to work sick in order to pay rent.”

The recently approved policy calls for businesses with fewer than 10 workers to provide at least three days of sick leave or personal leave time per year and those with more than 10 employees to provide five days of sick or personal leave time per year. 

Employers will be required to provide employees one hour of sick leave for every 30 hours worked, with a maximum of 24 or 40 hours of sick leave annually, depending on the businesses size. Those exempt from the policy include seasonal and temporary workers and construction workers.

In preparation of implementing the sick leave policy, council members have gathered sick leave policies from 24 cities across the U.S., including Seattle and Tacoma. Stuckart says he’s had conversations with officials in those cities and several cities in California.

“They range from small to big cities, and each one of them literally has a different way as to how they implemented and enforce their sick leave policy,” Stuckart says.

“Some use the expertise of independent labor organizations in enforcement. Other cities will use their own code enforcement, while others may use their respective prosecutor’s office,” Stuckart says. “We need to study and implement what is best for us because right now, we just don’t know what that answer is.”

The council—by a vote of a 6-1—approved the proposal on Jan. 11 after more than 70 people testified about the policy that night. Condon vetoed it last Friday, Jan. 22, but the council then overrode Condon’s veto on Monday. In both votes, Councilman Mike Fagan was the lone dissenter.

Condon said at a Friday press conference to announce the veto that there are still too many unanswered questions about the policy.

“It needs much more deliberate thought,” Condon said last week. “Where do we enforce this in the city? That has not been determined yet. It’s not ready to be implemented here in the city of Spokane.”

Condon said he’s concerned about the measure as there are also no initial cost estimates to go along with it. “That should have been part of the legislation,” he said.

“Having employment laws city by city becomes very problematic for a multitude of reasons, notwithstanding the way our workforce works today—living in one community, working in another, one business being in one community but having employment in others,” Condon said.

Megan White, general manager of the Main Market Co-op, at 44 W. Main in downtown Spokane, and a supporter of the measure, says, “We offer eight days of paid sick leave to our workers in their first year. We’ve found that paid sick leave offers a quality of life for our employees and reduces employee turnover.”

 The six-year-old organic grocery market that occupies 11,000 square feet of space has always offered sick leave to its nearly 30 workers.

Main Market is one of nearly three-dozen businesses and nonprofits that Spokane Alliance, a 10-year-old organization that says it’s devoted “to making Spokane a better place for all to live and thrive,” cites as a supporter of safe and sick leave. The Center for Justice, Lantern Tap House and Salon Illuminate are a few of the other supporting organizations and businesses listed by Spokane Alliance.

GSI interim CEO Alisha Benson says that organization and its constituents opposed city government establishing a mandatory sick leave policy.

“What we’ve always been concerned about is a one-size-fits-all mandate coming from city government,” she says. “Our position remains that individual companies should have the ability to determine sick leave policy with their workers. We will continue to work with city council on how to make this the least impactful on the Spokane business community, particularly small businesses.”

The city council’s discussion of a mandatory sick leave policy over the past year led some businesses from outside the area to abandon consideration of relocating here, while causing some current businesses here to consider moving, says Benson, who declines to disclose the names of those businesses.

“We’re not in a position to divulge who they are, but as the city’s economic development organization, it has been very difficult to compete with other cities in recruitment and retention efforts,” she says.

Condon said he’s worried about how small entrepreneurs may view Spokane’s business climate. More than 90 percent of businesses in Spokane have 20 or fewer employees, he said.

“That perception that we may be over-burdensome is very concerning to me, especially when we look at our other colleagues in the county that talk about being more business friendly,” Condon said.

Shaun Greer, who serves as legal counsel for Spokane-based membership organization Associated Industries, says that organization is concerned about the legal ramification of the sick-leave provision.

“Offering a paid leave benefit is a ‘best practice,’ although we recognize that for a variety of reasons some employers may not be able to do so,” Greer says. “However, the law as it is written now leaves open the door for conflict and ambiguity. We believe certain aspects of the ordinance may detract from the intended purpose by adding unnecessary conflict and controversy.”

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