Mandatory sick leave moves forward in Capitol

Nearly every Oregon employee could have at least 40 hours of paid sick leave in the near future if the Oregon Legislature succeeds in passing one of two bills currently under discussion in the Capitol.

Both the Senate and the House of Representatives are considering bills that would mandate paid sick time for all employees who work in Oregon (with a few exceptions).

The Senate Committee on Workforce passed Senate Bill 454 on to the joint budget committee on Thursday afternoon; the House bill will be up for discussion again on Monday.

The issue has met strong opposition from Republicans, who say the policy would be damaging to small businesses and is part of a Democrat agenda that, taken as a whole, would harm Oregon's economy.

The bills are all well intentioned, said Rep. Bill Kennemer, R-Oregon City, but the cumulative effect for businesses would be onerous. Kennemer is the vice-chairman of the House Committee on Business and Labor, which is handling House Bill 2005.

The set includes not just sick leave, but an increased minimum wage, increases to workers compensation, mandates around work scheduling and an extension of the Oregon Family Leave Act to include siblings.

Democrats said both SB 454 and HB 2005 have been designed to be as easy for businesses to handle as possible.

Both bills mandate that all employees, full time or not, are given at least 40 hours of paid sick time in a calendar year. They must also be allowed to accrue up to 80 hours or be paid for their unused time, said Rep. Paul Holvey, D-Eugene, chairman of the House committee.

Businesses with five or fewer employees would be exempt, he said.

Those rules are the product of weeks of negotiations, Holvey said. The Senate and House committees heard public testimony together to make sure they had the same information, and some members have met with businesses and other stakeholders as part of an informal bipartisan work group each week to hash out the details and make sure it's a reasonable policy, he said.

The bill originally required 56 hours of paid time off, he said, but they cut it back to 40 when they saw that none of the cities that have already adopted a policy, such as Portland, Eugene and San Francisco, have required more than that.

They also created the exemption for very small businesses after hearing from stakeholders who said they couldn't afford the benefits.

Kennemer said that was a step in the right direction, but he would have probably put the threshold higher. The concern isn't just very small businesses, he said, but also new ones. A company that has just opened its doors won't have the same flexibility in its budget that a more established company would have, Kennember said, and the law doesn't allow for that.

The proposed Oregon policy would require an employee to work 90 days for a company before accruing any sick leave, which essentially exempts most seasonal labor, and it then allows the accrual to happen gradually.

That means employers wouldn't be flooded with costs all at once, Holvey said.

However, the changes to the bill weren't enough to satisfy Republicans who worried about what it would do to the economy.

Sen. Kim Thatcher, R-Keizer, told her committee on Thursday that the policy would likely result in job losses or employees with reduced hours, which helps no one in the long run.

Oregon is home to so many small business, she said, and it's hard to see why the legislature is adopting policies that tend to be unfriendly toward them.

She and Sen. Tim Knopp, R-Bend, introduced several amendments that would limit the bill further, but all of them failed.

House Speaker Tina Kotek, D-Portland, supported the bill, saying, "Making sure workers throughout Oregon can earn paid sick days is an important step in the effort to expand opportunity for all Oregonians, and will make a huge difference for the thousands of workers who currently have to risk losing their jobs if they need to stay home to take care of themselves or a sick kid."

Sen. Michael Dembrow, D-Portland, said he was "sensitive" to the needs of businesses, but the employees had to be considered as well. For example, Thatcher and Knopp pushed for a change that would limit the bill to full-time employees, but Dembrow said it would have negative impacts on workers.

Many part-time employees work multiple part-time jobs, he said, and are not really "part time" in the sense that they have more time off during their week than a traditional employee.

A rule like that would likely encourage businesses to cut people's hours, Holvey said, again having a counter-productive effect.

The state has an important role in mandating how workers are treated, Holvey said. The legislature sets laws about minimum wage, overtime, family leave, working conditions and more, he said, and this is no different.

Kennemer did not disagree, and he supports sick time for as many workers as possible, but he questioned the wisdom of trying to do so much during one session. He said it was more important to have well-crafted, thoughtful rules than passing too many of them, especially since people so often try and get around the rules that do pass.

"You cannot legislate decency, which is what I think a lot of these laws are about," Kennemer said.

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