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Paid sick days keep economy healthy

TwoViews: No one likes to get sick, but City Hall's plan stirs business ire


by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT - Cooks Matt Alspach and Tamara Edens prep food in the kitchen of Grain and Gristle. Employees at the Northeast Portland restaurant will be  accruing sick pay as of January first, implemented by the owners.On Halloween, our colleague Francisco Lopez, executive director of Causa Oregon, Oregon’s immigrant rights organization, asked Portland’s city commissioners to solve a scary community problem that really hurts communities of color and low-wage workers most: a lack of paid sick time at work.

Francisco was joined by dozens of Portlanders whose lives and families are directly affected by not earning paid sick time when they work.

One woman shared a common struggle: her husband has worked for the same employer for 15 years yet has never been allowed to earn a paid sick day. She described times when recovering from the flu or caring for a sick child led to financial challenges — and fear of losing his job.

In the Portland area, four in 10 private-sector workers do not earn a paid sick day. When you focus on low-wage workers (those least able to afford unpaid time off when sick), an incredible eight in 10 nationally don’t earn a day.

Yet we all get sick. And working sick isn’t good for any of us — not our own health, not our co-workers, not our customers, not school kids, not classmates, not teachers, not bottom lines, not Portland.

Workers of color are especially affected. According to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, 42 percent of black workers and 57 percent of Latino workers in the Portland area’s private-sector workplaces do not earn a paid sick day — compared to 39 percent of white workers.

More than 40,000 workers of color in our “city that works” earn zero paid sick days. So when they’re sick or need to go to the doctor or have to care for a sick child, they’re confronted with an impossible choice of working sick or foregoing precious income, and at times even face reprisals and unemployment.

That’s a situation we shouldn’t put any Portlander in, especially those least able to afford lost wages. The 27 percent of people of color in Multnomah County who live in poverty surely can’t afford it. People working minimum-wage jobs can’t afford it.

Job-protected paid sick days are an important tool to enable our families to be responsible employees, reliable providers, and good caregivers.

Some will say that supporting our workers and protecting our community’s health in this way is anti-business. Quite the contrary, in fact. A community standard for earned sick days would help businesses reduce costly turnover and improve worker productivity, as we’ve learned from San Francisco’s five-year-old policy.

Many Portland business owners support paid sick days and remark that when they respond to the needs of their employees, they experience a more productive and healthy workplace and turnover costs go down.

The bottom line is that we all get sick. But we don’t all have the time we need to recover from illness or see the doctor or care for our sick children.

In this economy, Portlanders need fair and reasonable labor standards that help them keep their jobs, support their families, maintain their health, and stay out of poverty.

We add our voices to those of the workers who rallied at City Hall this week to ask city commissioners to take a small step — with big results — toward a more equitable and healthy local economy.

Kayse Jama is executive director of the Center for Intercultural Organizing. Midge Purcell is director of

advocacy and public policy for the Urban League. Joseph Santos-Lyons is development and policy director of the Asian Pacific American Network of Oregon.