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Bates Says Statewide Paid Sick Leave Law Within Hours of Agreement

The Ashland senator said a press conference called Tuesday by Sen. Dembrow and other liberal champions of paid sick leave did not affect negotiations over Senate Bill 454, which may end up being more progressive than laws passed in California, Connecticut and Massachusetts.
May 27, 2015

Sen. Alan Bates, D-Ashland, told The Lund Report that at the end of Wednesday’s Senate floor session he believes a deal is imminent on crafting a statewide paid sick-leave law that will be the most progressive of its kind in the nation.

“I believe we’re within hours of an agreement,” Bates said. “We have to get this bill done. We’ve got to go where the votes are.”

Bates spent most of the floor session walking in and out of the chamber on his cell phone, perhaps working to close the deal on Senate Bill 454, which has been a top 2015 priority of the Democratic Party.

He said he wouldn’t spoil the negotiations by revealing the fine details of the agreement, but the current version keeps the policy intact for employers with 10 or more employees, as opposed to the 25 preferred by Bates and business groups like the Chamber of Commerce.

Oregon would not be the first state to enact a statewide paid sick leave law -- Connecticut, Massachusetts and California have all beat the Beaver State to the punch.

But Oregon’s law would go further than California’s law, which takes effect July 1 and mandates just three sick days; Oregon’s proposal calls for five.

Bates said Connecticut’s law only applies to employers with 50 employees. The voter-approved Massachusetts law applies to those with 11 or more. “California has so many exemptions it almost doesn’t amount to anything. We’re going to be the most progressive.”

Sen. Michael Dembrow, D-Portland, and other liberal Democrats called a press conference Tuesday, and told reporters that the paid sick leave bill had gotten caught up in discussions over a minimum wage increase and a desire by the business community to end local government control over all employment practices in Oregon.

“Some people wanted to go whole hog on that,” Dembrow told reporters. “That’s simply not going to happen.”

Dembrow said he wants an increase in Oregon’s minimum wage from $9.25, but if push came to shove, he preferred paid sick leave because of the work that’s been put into such a policy since he first introduced a bill in 2013.

Lawmakers also could not agree on high the minimum wage should go, and whether Portland and other cities with higher costs of living should be free to impose higher wages than less costly parts of the state.

Bates told The Lund Report he was hopeful the Legislature could open up a statewide pre-emption on certain employment practices in reverse, such as the minimum wage. He said it was a good policy to allow Portland to set a minimum wage according to its high cost-of-living compared to Coos Bay. Even the two main cities in his district -- Medford and Ashland -- have greatly disparate housing costs.

He said no bills affecting the minimum wage were currently on the table.

The press conference was called two months after Senate Bill 454 passed Dembrow’s Senate Workforce Committee with little above-ground action on the bill as it has labored in the Committee on Ways & Means’ Human Services Subcommittee, which Bates chairs with Rep. Nancy Nathanson, D-Eugene.

Dembrow was joined by nine other Democrats, including Rep. Peter Buckley of Ashland, the House budget chairman and Rep. Paul Holvey of Eugene, the chairman of the House Business & Labor Committee.

It was a clear attempt to put pressure on Bates and Democrats who may be waffling on paid sick leave, but Bates insisted the press conference had no effect. “We’ve been working diligently on that bill.”

Senate Bill 454 is a complicated piece of legislation that went through 22 amendments before it passed Dembrow’s Workforce Committee, with a number of accommodations made to make the bill more palatable to the business community.

The most notable distinction between the current iteration of SB 454 and the Portland paid sick leave law is that the state law would apply to employers with 10 or more workers while the Portland law affects those with just six employees. Portland would be allowed to keep its differing standard, but other communities that may act on paid sick leave such as Ashland or Corvallis, would be pre-empted by a state law from enacting a different standard. Eugene’s law, which takes effect in July, applies to all employers.

Employers who are not required to give paid sick leave under SB 454 would still have to give unpaid sick leave.

“We made a promise if we elected a strong majority in both houses, we would move forward with this,” said Sen. Elizabeth Steiner Hayward, D-Beaverton. “We owe Oregonians this policy.”

Oregon employees would accrue one hour of sick time for every 30 hours worked and must work at least 90 days with an employer before they get any paid time off. Employees can voluntarily trade shifts rather than take sick days; an employer can also allow them to voluntarily offer up unused sick time to an ill co-worker in need.

SB 454 remains opposed by the usual suspects, including conservative business groups like Associated Oregon Industries and the Salem Area Chamber of Commerce, as well as members of the agribusiness sector, who complained that applying paid sick time to seasonal employees would hurt them at harvest time.

Not all businesses oppose the measure. Peter Emerson, the owner of the Bipartisan Cafe in southeast Portland, said he had a knee-jerk reaction against Portland’s ordinance, but he eventually came around. “In the back of my head, I knew it was a good thing,” he said, adding that the alarms raised about the Portland law have not borne out -- his employees have not abused the benefit and several of them have never taken any time off.

Businesses in the service sector who oppose paid sick time for their employees are essentially willing to put their customers at the risk of contagious disease by compelling their employees to either come to work with the flu or forgo money for rent.

But Bates sympathized with small businesses, which he said have a lot less leeway in their budgets if multiple employees go down with a sickness and are given paid sick time. He said there were about 1,000 businesses in the state that have between 10 and 25 employees.