PORTLAND IS WELL KNOWN for its fine food scene. But what happens when the workers who dish up all those artisan ice cream scoops and slices of pork belly come down with the flu? Eighty percent of Portland food service workers have no paid sick days, a new study shows—a fact city hall might soon change by requiring almost all businesses to provide paid sick days.
Last week, four Portland restaurant owners—of Pine State Biscuits, Grain and Gristle, ¿Por Qué No?, and Mekong Bistro—penned a letter backing a proposal that would require every business with more than six employees to allow their workers to accrue up to five paid sick days annually.
"Providing paid sick days does not conform to our industry's 'standard,' which is why it's the perfect opportunity for Portland's restaurant industry," the letter says. "If we all take this step forward, together, we'll all be better off."
City Commissioner Amanda Fritz submitted a draft of the proposal this month, something that unions and worker advocacy groups have long desired. The plan, which city council will hear on January 31, is similar to a policy passed last year by Seattle, which became only the third city in America to require paid sick days.
City stats show 40 percent of workers in Portland have no paid sick days. Restaurants have the least paid sick days of any local industry (besides the agricultural industries), a sad fact in line with national figures.
But critics of the plan worry about both paid sick days' financial impact on businesses and whether Portland should wait for the legislature to pass a statewide law, to ease enforcement and create an equal situation across Oregon.
"The mayor is in favor of doing what we can for working families," says Dana Haynes, spokesman for Mayor Charlie Hales. "While he prefers a statewide option, he is pleased with ongoing stakeholder outreach. Still, first and foremost, it's an issue for the legislature. If the state doesn't act, he wants the city council to take up this issue."
¿Por Qué No? owner Bryan Steelman says he provides paid sick days for all of his workers as a "quality of life issue" and supports the city plan, but also acknowledges that it might be hard for some smaller businesses to afford.
"The cost of paid sick days is minuscule compared to our costs of providing good health care for our employees, but it is a cost and it will catch many businesses off guard," writes Steelman, via email.
Northeast Portland's Grain and Gristle also provides its workers the opportunity to accrue paid time off, which raises the company's labor costs by two to three percent, owner Ben Meyer says. But the added financial cost is worth it, figures Meyer, for the "hidden benefits": higher employee productivity, less turnover, and sick workers not infecting the entire staff.
"If all workers were given similar benefits, by law, then there wouldn't be a disparity between the businesses who offer them and those who do not," argues Steelman.