Steiner Hayward: Earned Sick Leave a Public Health Challenge

The physician and senator, who represents Beaverton and Northwest Portland, built the case for a statewide earned sick leave law at the Portland City Club’s December forum. Another bill, phasing out older, dirty diesel engines banned in California and Washington may face opposition from counties that are buying up the cheap engines that Oregon’s greener neighbors don’t want.

A pair of leading state Democratic lawmakers shared the stage Friday with the House Republican leader at the Portland City Club and gave a promising preview of what’s to come in the 2015 legislative session: a statewide law that would make Oregon the fourth state to mandate that employers give paid time off for sick employees.

Sen. Elizabeth Steiner Hayward, D-Portland, told a sizable audience in downtown Portland that the recent scare over the deadly but exceedingly rare Ebola virus cast in stark relief a real public health crisis: catching the flu because restaurant workers have little choice but to work through their illness.

“We have people showing up to work every day sharing active influenza with everybody else,” she said.

Steiner Hayward said 47 percent of Oregonians can’t take a day off without losing pay. The problem is particularly insidious because the people least likely to get paid sick leave are often those who are least likely to be able to afford a day off and most likely to interact with the public and spread their infectious diseases.

“You don’t get sick based on how much money you make,” she said.

House Majority Leader Val Hoyle, D-Eugene, said a uniform statewide law would be better for Oregon businesses while protecting more people than a patchwork of ordinances passed or under consideration in the state’s more liberal cities, such as Portland, Eugene, Corvallis and Ashland.

A bill was introduced in 2013 by a key leader of the Democratic Party’s liberal wing, Sen. Michael Dembrow of Portland, but it died under heavy opposition from the business community, Republicans and right-leaning Democrats.

Now that Oregon Democrats have expanded their majority in the Legislature, the issue is moving from its position at the top of the wish list of liberal Democrats to a more full-throated backing of the party’s leadership. Earlier this month while announcing his 2013-2015 budget, Gov. John Kitzhaber told reporters, “It’s an idea that makes a lot of sense.”

California and Connecticut were the first states to adopt earned sick leave laws, and Massachusetts voters just approved a sick leave law despite hiring a Republican governor in the same election.

The sole Republican on the stage, House Minority Leader Mike McLane of Prineville, did not weigh in on the issue, but did strike a moderate chord open to negotiation on other issues, such as an increase in the gasoline tax or some other funding mechanism to rebuild Oregon’s transportation infrastructure.

“I’m kind of an Eisenhower Republican,” McLane said. “I believe in good infrastructure. I believe we need to pay as we go.”

Oregon Counties Buying Dirty Diesel Engines

The legislators were more circumspect on another public issue, raised by Portland City Club member Mary Peveto: improving air quality by ending the sale of outdated, dirty diesel engines.

In 2013, Oregon passed a law banning the sale of obsolete, inefficient electronic equipment after it became clear that stricter laws in Washington and California were making Oregon a dumping ground for junk electronics. Peveto said similar laws were creating the same situation in Oregon with old, dirty diesel engines.

Peveto said she is working with Rep. Mitch Greenlick, D-Portland, on a piece of legislation to phase out the market on older diesel engines, but she’s gotten pushback -- not from businesses --  but from county governments that are buying up the old pollution-spewing equipment that California no longer wants.

“They say, ‘We’re buying this really cheap equipment,’” Peveto told The Lund Report.

Hoyle conceded that Lane County, which she represents, has some of the dirtiest air in Oregon because of its geography at the head of the Willamette Valley. “It is a public health problem.” But she preferred an incentive program for equipment owners that would encourage them to use newer equipment that meets environmental standards.

The pushback from the counties could explain Hoyle’s response since Lane County also has to deal with severe budget challenges as a county traditionally dependent on timber revenues that have dried up from the loss of old-growth timber.

Mental Health

On another issue of the hour, Hoyle said the Legislature would work in a bipartisan fashion to improve the tattered safety net for people with severe and persistent mental illness.

While improving the community mental health system has become increasingly politically popular, it’s often hollowed or made more complicated because setting up an adequate community addictions and mental health system is no longer really a funding issue -- thanks to the Affordable Care Act, almost all low-income people are now eligible for Medicaid, and the coordinated care organizations are flush with money to treat them.

But most of the CCOs show little signs of dramatically changing the system to route their clients into the appropriate treatment for mental health or addictions, and the state has done very little to ensure accountability or transparency in how CCO dollars are spent.

In theory, the quality metrics that offer financial rewards to CCOs that adequately screen and follow-up on these patients could ensure that people are not falling through the cracks, but that has to be balanced against the CCO’s bottom line to save money in the short term by maintaining a status quo that ignores this population.

Chris can be reached at [email protected].

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