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Eugene's Sick Leave Proposal Draws Opposition

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Eugene is looking to follow in the footsteps of Portland and Seattle with a sick leave ordinance. It would require employers to provide paid sick time to their workers within city limits. This endeavor has been welcomed by many low-wage workers and their advocates and met with dismay by many employers. The Lane County Board of Commissioners is trying to sideline the effort.

More than half of Eugene's private sector workers do not get paid time off when they're sick, according to the Institute for Women's Policy Research. Most of these workers get minimum wage and don't have a lot of job security.

Yaer Buendia: "We are one paycheck away from having to move out of our house or from not being able to have food in the fridge."

Yaer Buendia spoke at a recent Eugene City Council meeting. He lives with his parents, works, and goes to school.

Buendia: "It is hard to sit at school when I know that my parents need my help to take care of the family because they can't even afford to take one day off to take care of my little brothers and sisters when they are sick."

These are the people City Councilor Claire Syrett hopes will benefit from a sick leave ordinance. She and Councilor Alan Zelenka put forth the idea several months ago. Syrett says worker justice is important to her.

Syrett: "From my perspective, this kind of policy is a smart policy that gets at worker justice issue and public health issues all at the same time."

The draft law requires employers to provide 1 hour of paid sick time for every 30 hours worked with a cap at 40 hours in a year.
Syrett says some workers face loss of income and even losing their job if they take time off.

Syrett: "I think right now we're kind of pretending that people don't get sick and that when they do they can just deal with it and the fact is that we have an estimated 25 thousand workers in the city who have no protection against being fired. So they are very vulnerable and they are struggling to make ends meet."

Many employers have spoken out against the ordinance saying it puts an undo burden on them. The Eugene area Chamber of Commerce polled its members. A majority of respondents oppose it. Dave Hauser is president of the Chamber. He's afraid small businesses will suffer with the added expense.

Hauser: "That's a deep concern for us. The impact of this potential ordinance on the businesses with the least capacity to absorb the cost or the administrative burden."

Nancy Nesmith is Executive Director of Home Instead Senior Care. Her company provides in home care primarily for seniors. She says the ordinance would require her to hire another bookkeeper to track employees' hours. She'll also have more payroll taxes.

Nesmith: "Our bottom line impact is going to be about $107 thousand and that's just a little bit more than what we made last year. So, all of a sudden, we are looking at being a not-for-profit break even company. And that's not good. There's no growth model in that."

Nesmith questions the process the city is taking and wonders why not wait until there's more info from Portland. That city's sick leave ordinance has been in effect for just over 6 months and there's no data yet on how it's affected the economy.

Sick leave advocates say there is data from San Francisco and Seattle that shows about a 1 percent increase in costs for businesses. And most workers don't use all of their time.

Laurie Trieger is with Everybody Benefits Coalition, which advocates for the sick leave law.

Trieger: "This ordinance is not intended to be punitive to any business, to be cumbersome or burdensome to anyone to track. It is really meant to provide some income stabilization to, especially our lowest wage workers, to provide a very modest minimum labor standard."

Trieger points out that most developed nations have sick leave policies.  Not all employers oppose the measure. Rob Cohen is co-owner of Falling Sky Brewing. He says they recently started providing paid sick leave to their employees.

Cohen: "I would implore other businesses to do it and really think about giving basic benefits to their employees and I think in return they get more productivity from people, more loyal employees, more productive employees."

Springfield and Lane County leaders have voiced opposition to Eugene's proposed sick leave ordinance. That's because it will affect employers outside Eugene.  The Board has drafted three ordinances that seek to curtail Eugene's sick leave ordinance. It's unclear how the county's actions will pan out.

Eugene's ordinance is in a draft form and if passed wouldn’t go into effect until a year from now. [I'm Rachael McDonald in Eugene.]

Optional tag: The city's public hearing on its ordinance is Monday July 21st. The County is holding its public hearing the same day.


Rachael McDonald is KLCC’s former News Director. Rachael has a BA in English from the University of Oregon. She started out in public radio as a newsroom volunteer at KLCC in 2000. After reporting for the Northwest News Network and KAZU, Rachael returned to KLCC in 2007 as Morning Edition host and a general assignment reporter covering politics, the environment, education, and the arts. She was hired as KLCC News Director in 2018. Rachael departed KLCC in June, 2022.
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