Portland Wins Sick Days and Everybody Benefits

By Jodie Levin-Epstein

The Portland City Council, on March 13, 2013, approved a bill establishing a minimum number of sick days for workers throughout the city. Portland now joins other jurisdictions around the nation (San Francisco, Seattle, Washington, D.C. and Connecticut) in establishing sick days laws.

Portland’s new law did not simply pass; the ordinance passed by a unanimous 5-0 vote. Unanimous. As in “undivided” “agreed” and “undisputed.” This represents an extraordinary amount of hard work and negotiation by the bill’s proponents-advocates, businesses, and city citizens. The Council bill includes a set of “findings,” the very first one of which captures what is at the heart of the debate:

“It is the policy of the City of Portland to ensure that all Persons who work in businesses located in Portland can stay at home when they or a close family member are sick, injured or in need of preventive medical care, in order to prevent the spread of disease and to allow all Portland residents to provide health care for a family member.”

The new law requires that employers with five employees or less provide at least one hour of unpaid sick leave for every 30 hours worked.  Those with six or more employees will be required to provide at least one hour of paid leave for every 30 hours. Employees have up to five days of leave through the law; employers are always able to go beyond this minimum standard.

The effort to pass the ordinance demonstrated wide-spread support. The “Everybody Benefits” campaign for paid sick days showcased nearly 40 business  supporters ranging from an auto clinic to a grocer to a construction company. Business associations weighed in as well. The African American Chamber of Commerce was a supporter;  Oregon’s Main Street Alliance and  Voice for Oregon Innovation & Sustainability (VOIS) Business Alliance issued a report “Understanding Earned Sick Time in Portland: A Guide for Businesses” showing that the benefits to small businesses of earned sick days outweigh the costs.  It was not just business support that won the day.  Many others joined in. For example, the city’s Human Rights Commission and 3 health associations stepped forward; no fewer than 10,000 people signed and sent requests for action.  

The law is set to take effect on January 1, 2014. Before then, the success in Portland will undoubtedly have an impact far beyond the city’s borders. That’s because it will help elected officials in communities and states where campaigns are underway know that yet another group of elected officials has already taken action to address the need for sick days. There are active campaigns in New York City and bills are under consideration in Washington State, Vermont, and Massachusetts.

The growing success of this sick days movement should also send a loud and clear signal to the nation’s capital about the need for federal action.  Portland’s action is timely: the Healthy Families Act is expected to be reintroduced in Congress within the month and Members from all around the country will have a chance to co-sponsor and demonstrate their commitment to earned sick days. Thank you Portland for inching the nation forward, and giving Congress another reason to move towards earned sick days and a country where everybody benefits.