SEATTLE -- Seattle is set to become the third U.S. city to require businesses to provide paid sick days for their workers, after a City Council vote Monday that supporters said could provide momentum for establishing similar laws across the country.
The council voted 8-1 to mandate that all but the smallest companies -- those with fewer than five workers -- give at least five paid days off a year to employees who are sick, need to care for a sick family member, or who are victims of domestic abuse and need to take time off to assist law enforcement or attend court hearings. Businesses with more than 250 workers would have to provide nine days.
Mayor Mike McGinn is expected to sign the measure, putting Seattle in a league with San Francisco; Washington, D.C.; and Connecticut, where a state law takes effect in January. Residents of Denver will vote on a similar measure this fall, and proponents are pushing for a statewide paid sick days law in Massachusetts and elsewhere. Milwaukee passed a sick-leave bill in 2008 that was later pre-empted by the state Legislature, and this year Philadelphia's city council passed one which was vetoed by its mayor.
Nationwide, 44 million workers do not have access to paid sick days, according to the advocacy group Family Values at Work. An estimated 145,000 to 190,000 of them are in Seattle.
"Seattle residents shouldn't have to choose between staying home sick and keeping their job," McGinn said in a written statement.
Dozens of supporters attended the hearing, carrying and waving paper-plate signs that read "I'm a fan of paid sick days," and met the vote with a standing ovation. Among them was grocery store cashier Natasha West-Baker, who said that without paid time off she had to work an 8-hour shift last Saturday immediately after she underwent an MRI for severe back pain.
"It's not an OK way to live," she said. "I'm the sole provider for a family of five. This is going to give me the time I need to be to be healthy and not worry about whether that day off is going to cost me the gas in my car or the food on my table."
The proposal drew opposition from some in the business community who warned that it was bad policy even in the best of times, and possibly disastrous during a recession. George Allen, of the Greater Seattle Chamber of Commerce, said that in San Francisco some businesses had to forego hiring additional workers or giving out bonuses because of that city's law, which took effect in 2007.
Rick Yoder, owner of the upscale restaurant Wild Ginger, said that the measure was one more factor stacked against Seattle business owners, including the recently hiked downtown parking rates.
"The city needs to start embracing the idea of the entrepreneurial ideal and what that brings to our city," Yoder said. "Are we trying to send a message here that the urban core is no longer important?"
Several people also criticized an exception in the law that allows the mandated sick time to be bargained away as part of collective bargaining agreements.
But a number of other business owners came out in favor of the measure, saying they wanted to care for their workers and that the law wouldn't cost them as much as anticipated. Restaurants and bars can meet the requirements by offering schedule swaps to accommodate the sick time.
The law wouldn't take effect for a year, and new businesses would not have to comply until they've been operating for two years.