Sick leave legislation not in cards (for now) in Vancouver

Mandatory paid sick leave movement gaining momentum nationwide, but not in Clark County

Woman sneezing

The Pacific Northwest cities of Seattle, Tacoma and Portland have recently passed paid sick leave legislation within their city governments, and last month the state of Oregon even passed a house bill that would make paid sick leave mandatory statewide. Thus far, though, Vancouver and Clark County in general do not appear to be the next ones in line to do so.

“This issue has not come before the public affairs council,” said Kelly Love, CEO and president of the Greater Vancouver Chamber of Commerce.

“As far as I know, it’s never come up as a city issue,” echoed Jack Burkman, member of the Vancouver City Council.

There are theories about why sick leave legislation hasn’t been more of an issue in Southwest Washington, despite it gaining momentum in other Pacific Northwest cities. One of the more popular ones involves the difference in business environments between the cities – Vancouver’s small businesses have the potential to be more adversely affected than the large businesses of a city like Seattle or Tacoma.

Another belief is that the issue isn’t one that the city should be concerned with; there are numerous other pressing matters that the local government has been involved with, and paid sick leave might be better left to the state of Washington.

“There are many issues that come before the chamber,” Love explained. “Transportation project work completion, unemployment insurance, sales tax enforcement – those have been the issues that have caught the attention of our chamber over the past year.”

“In general, I don’t see that this is a typical city issue,” Burkman added. “I see it as a state issue. If it’s a state issue, then it’s applied over a broader area.”

Last month, the Oregon Legislature passed a bill making it the fourth state in the nation to institute statewide paid sick leave. Washington had nearly become the fourth itself, earlier in the year. In March, the Washington House of Representatives passed House Bill 1356 to allow for all employers in the state with more than four full-time workers to receive at least 40 hours of paid sick leave per year. The bill also called for employers with more than 50 full-time employees to take even greater amounts of paid leave per year. However, in April, the legislation was returned to the House Rules Committee for a third reading, and since then there has been no further update to it.

“I can see very strong positives and negatives to this kind of a law,” Burkman said. “Clearly, there are some benefits to families and such, but there’s an impact on businesses. In some ways it’s reminiscent of a 15-dollar minimum wage. There are certainly some benefits and certainly some downsides.”

Of course the idea that any jurisdiction – local or state – should consider legislating paid sick leave is up for debate. Some believe the issue should be left to the relationship between employee and employer.

“I think that whatever the benefit – vacation, holidays, whatever you want to dump this all into, I think that it’s a deal between company and employee,” said Bill Huseby, president of Sigma Design, a Vancouver-based engineering consulting firm. “The government shouldn’t make you do it. If the employee doesn’t like the package they’re getting, they have a choice. It’s a business decision that the company has to make. It’s more fair to say ‘here’s your time, do with it what you want.’ What we do with our flexible time off, our paid time off (PTO), it’s on a rolling scale. You start with a certain number of days and that increases over time. We reward loyalty to the company.”

John Rudi, president of Thompson Metal Fab, said that his company also handles sick leave like general PTO, and that mandating it would have a negative effect on businesses here.

“It’s really a challenge if you have to start policing whether a person is really sick,” he said. “I don’t think that non-employers really think about that much.

“I think it would be a huge mistake to mandate [paid sick leave],” Rudi added. “The market is going to demand what you get and it’s never a good thing when you start setting price controls.”

It is unclear what the future holds for paid sick leave legislation in Washington, but it is apparent that the mandatory paid sick leave movement is gaining momentum nationwide. In January, President Obama called for the passage of the Healthy Families Act, which would require businesses with at least 15 employees to accumulate as many as seven paid sick leave days per year for workers. It was estimated that this act would allow paid sick leave access to more than 40 million workers who previously would not have it. However, the latest action on the bill was in late April, when it was referred to the Subcommittee on Health, Employment, Labor and Pensions.

Speaking purely for the community (not for the council itself), Burkman said, “When you get into King County, those places are more likely to support those ideas. We’re less likely to go in that direction. There’s definitely a parallel to the higher minimum wage.”