Debate rages over proposed sick-leave law
By Mark Wolf
Health Policy Solutions
The sun is barely up and the Friday workday is yawning, but inside Snooze Eatery, the activity level belies the name on the door.
Every table and booth in the front room of the breakfast/lunch restaurant at Park Avenue and Larimer Street is occupied. A work crew in coveralls spreads across three tables, three guys in shirts and ties are in another. The wait staff efficiently navigates the space, taking and filling breakfast orders. Here the blueberry pancakes, there the three-egg omelet, everywhere the coffee from Guatemala.
On the front window, the most prominent sign urges: "No on 300. The wrong solution at the worst possible time."
Restaurants such as Snooze have become a focal point in the battle over Initiative 300 which would require employers in Denver to provide workers with nine paid sick leave days annually. Businesses employing 10 or fewer workers would have to offer five sick days.
Campaign for a Healthy Denver, whose members include health organizations, businesses, community organizations and health groups, leads the effort to pass the bill. The opposition is organized through Keep Denver Competitive, whose roster of supporters includes restaurant owners and business groups. A majority of Denver City Council members, Mayor Michael Hancock and Gov. John Hickenlooper, former owner of Wynkoop Brewing Co., also oppose the bill.
Directors of the Hope Center, a daycare center in northeast Denver, back the sick leave measure. They say workers who tend to infants and young children need sick leave so they don't infect babies with contagious illnesses.
Proponents cast the sick leave initiative as a health issue that would keep customers away from sick employees and allow workers to stay home with sick children. They cite studies showing about 107,000 Denver workers, including 72 percent of food service workers, do not have paid sick days, and that when they go to work sick they present a threat to public health.
The opponents view it as an economic issue that burdens small businesses, creates a troublesome bureaucracy and could keep new businesses from locating in Denver. They also point to existing laws that already prohibit sick employees from working around food.
Devil in the details
Snooze co-owner Adam Schlegel says his opposition is not to the concept of paid sick leave.
"But nine paid sick days is to me an extraordinary amount to be allotted each year," he said. "Employees don't have to call in sick. Employers can't mandate they have to give any notice or documentation for up to three days. There's no way I can run my business effectively if an employee just doesn't show up to work. No call/no show is one of the most detrimental things to a business and for that to be something I can't hold against them is wrong."
Initiative 300 would allow workers to take sick leave in hourly increments, which proponents say is necessary to deal with doctor's appointments without missing a full day of work, but Schlegel says could create untenable staffing situations.
"If my 7 a.m. employee server decided to show up at 8 a.m., I can't say a thing about it, but they can just say, ‘Sorry, I was sick this morning, but I feel better now so I'm just going to take an hour of sick pay.' Operationally for me, I've already had to call in another employee to cover that shift," said Schlegel, who is president of EatDenver, a network of 60 independent Denver restaurants that has come out against the sick leave initiative.
Schlegel said his restaurants don't allow employees to work when they're sick.
"We obviously know how damaging that would be to our restaurant, to our staff, to the overall morale. We ask those folks to go home," he said.
Jennifer Piallat, who owns Zazie, a French bistro in San Francisco, shared many of Schlegel's concerns in 2007 when San Francisco was preparing to implement a new sick leave ordinance similar to Denver's.
"Every restaurateur said, ‘It's going to end us.' But it's so infrequently used that I haven't heard anyone talk about it," said Piallat.
She said Zazie paid $1,640 in sick leave benefits during 2010. Had her employees used every sick day available, the cost would have approached $23,000. Her employees, she said, have not abused the sick leave available to them.
"We used to have sickouts because everybody was sick at the same time. We don't get that anymore. People stay home if they're genuinely sick," she said. "We're close to UCSF, the main cancer hospital in San Francisco. Considering our employees wait on over 120 people a day, it's a good thing those people aren't exposed to viruses."
Hourly workers get sick as much as anyone else, Piallat said. "These are people serving you your food and drink. That's an incredibly wide net to be throwing viruses around."
Opponents say Denver's proposed ordinance is more unfavorable to businesses than a sick leave law recently enacted in Seattle or San Francisco's, which passed with 61 percent approval.
"In San Francisco the policy expressly allows employers to require that employees give reasonable notice before taking leave. The proposed initiative in Denver doesn't allow for that. It says employers can't create any unreasonable barriers to employees' use of sick time," said Chantell Taylor, an attorney with Hogan Lovells, which represents Keep Denver Competitive.
‘Reasonable' notice appropriate
Kevin Abels, a spokesperson for Campaign for Healthy Denver says Initiative 300 would allow employers to require reasonable notice.
The owners of Snooze, Denver's popular breakfast and lunch spots, say allowing last-minute or partial sick days is the wrong solution at the wrong time. A sign at their downtown restaurant urges a no vote on the measure.
"What our ordinance says is that employers can't unreasonably prevent people from taking paid sick days, but that doesn't prevent employers from requiring people to call in the day when they're sick. What the ‘unreasonable' phrase does prevent is employers saying you have to call in a week in advance."
Opponents contend that allowing workers paid leave to care for an individual "related by blood or affinity whose close relationship with an employee is equivalent to a family relationship" is too broad.
"This would allow an employee to claim that a roommate is like a family member," said Taylor.
Abels responds that the language in the proposed initiative is "very specifically based on the language the federal government uses for its employee sick leave policy so it includes people like domestic partners and their children."
The competing factions issued widely varying estimates of how much it would cost Denver to implement the proposed law. Opponents cite the city attorney's estimate of $690,500. Proponents released an analysis by Kevin Miller of the Institute for Women's Policy Research projecting the cost at $277,179.
Denver-based Bell Policy Center issued a study examining existing research on paid sick-leave laws and endorsed Denver's sick-leave initiative. Among the study's findings: "There is strong evidence that paid sick leave increases overall productivity and reduces turnover rates, resulting in average savings to employers that exceed the average costs of the law. Workers who work while sick on average cost employers more than those who stay home to recuperate."
Taylor said the Bell report "focuses a lot on workers who come to work infected and what it fails to recognize is that paid sick leave doesn't actually prevent workers from coming to work infected. Studies have shown workers can be contagious up to four days before they show any symptoms which would cause them to call in sick. By the time they use paid sick leave, they have already exposed co-workers and the public. We'd really be better off just washing our hands more often."
Laura, a barista at a Denver Starbucks, said if she gets sick she is "forced to make that choice between sacrificing those hours and that pay to stay home and get better, or go to work sick so we can save money and pay our bills.
"I make less than $9 an hour and I work less than 40 hours a week so that doesn't add up to much. I have rent. Then the little things, buying groceries, using public transit. When you make such a small amount of money missing a few hours really matters. It really puts a dent in your paycheck and it's incredibly stressful," said Laura, who asked that her last name not be used.
"If I were able to stay home to get better without having to worry about how I was going to buy groceries that week, I wouldn't be putting public health at risk and I would be able to go back to work more quickly and be at full productivity."
Starbucks does not have designated sick leave days, but employees working at least 20 hours each week accrue paid time off after a year.
"They are allowed to use that time as they need whether for a sick day or time off for other reasons," said Stacey Krum, Starbucks spokeswoman.
Starbucks also offers short-term disability, which "provides up to 26 weeks of income protection for anything longer than three days," said Krum.
Starbucks is not taking a position on Denver's sick-leave initiative.
"We certainly want to make sure that as in any community, any company that offers options to its employees would continue to be able to provide the benefits we currently provide," said Krum.
Opponents contend it is small business owners who will be most at risk if they are forced to give sick leave.
"There's probably a reason why they're not providing paid leave and it's probably because they can't afford it. These businesses are not going to suddenly come up with the money. They're going to have to shift costs and that will result potentially in increased costs to consumers and decreased benefits in other areas to employees," said Taylor.
"Employees and employers are in a position now where they can work out their benefits directly and that's as it should be, not by a government mandate. There are already laws on the books that prevent sick workers from being around food, for example. Plus there's already a state law that provides time for workers who need it for domestic violence needs."
Snooze's Schlegel says he is concerned about the long-term implications if Initiative 300 is passed.
"Do I think all my staff is going to take nine days of paid sick leave every year? I don't right now, but I don't necessarily know what the mentality will be in three years. I don't know if this will become a known privilege or right as it slowly embeds itself into the way work is done."
Abels said employees "really appreciate when an employer offers them paid sick days and they are likely to be more loyal and more honest in dealings with their employer.
"What we've seen all over the country in cities, states and at the federal level where coalitions like ours have proposed sick day language, there is always opposition to this. Whatever the policy ends up being, business doesn't support it until it's implemented."
Initiative 300 Ballot Language
Shall the voters for the City and County of Denver adopt an ordinance that will provide that all employees (full-time, part-time and temporary) when they become employed within the geographic boundaries of Denver earn one hour of paid sick and safe time for every thirty hours worked, limited to seventy-two hours a year in the case of businesses with 10 or more total employees and forty hours in the case of businesses with fewer than ten total employees, to be used for themselves or to care for a family member (related by blood, marriage, legal adoption or affinity) in case of illness, need for preventative care or domestic violence needs, except that employees of new businesses with fewer than ten employees will not accrue paid sick and safe time until the business has been in operation for one year, and under said ordinance retaliation for use of paid sick and safe time will be prohibited and employers will be required to give notice to employees of their rights and keep records related to payment of paid sick time.