Illustration by Ryan Alexander-Tanner

THE IRONY seemed especially rich. Before a big city council hearing last week on whether Portland should leap into the moral void and order its small businesses to provide paid sick time for employees, City Commissioner Dan Saltzman's staff had something to tell the city clerk's office

The commissioner—rather under the weather last Thursday, January 31—was going to stay home sick.

At first, this seemed like part of a disturbing pattern for Saltzman. The veteran commissioner, especially when Sam Adams still ruled the roost, had a reputation for conspicuously skipping meetings and sometimes individual votes when sensitive subjects were up for debate.

And mandated sick leave, pushed hard by City Commissioner Amanda Fritz is an especially sensitive subject—pitting labor advocates and minimum-wage workers against high-powered industry lobbyists and business organizations keen to see the city either do nothing or punt the whole plan over to the more easily influenced (and more Republican!) state capital.

But Saltzman, it turns out, wasn't trying to duck anything. Far from it.

He phoned into the meeting from home—with his office persuading the people who broadcast the meetings on local cable access to cook up a special insignia explaining his physical absence.

And, way more importantly, he'll be investing his political capital directly in the push for sick time. In some fashion.

Fritz announced at the hearing that Saltzman will join her as co-chair on a "balanced" task force meant to smooth some of the bumps in her proposal on the way to winning broad support both from labor unions and business interests.

She also said it was Saltzman's idea to create the special panel and get involved. Mayor Charlie Hales, another doubter of a Portland-only sick-time policy, merely gave it his blessing.

The task force, once it's filled out, will spend the next few weeks coming up with amendments. Then a new proposal, filled with changes, will emerge at the end of the month and head for a final vote in early March.

To be sure, some of those changes will come from groups like the Portland Business Alliance (PBA), Northwest Grocery Association, and Oregon Restaurant and Lodging Association (ORLA) who remain either bitterly opposed or intensely skeptical.

But it's also clear that labor unions and worker rights advocates are watching−and waiting to shape the process. This is undeniably a moral and a health issue—perfectly illustrated by the parade of restaurant workers explaining how often they come to work feverish, touching both you and your food.

Tom Chamberlain, president of the local AFL-CIO chapter and someone who could one day run for city council, gets it. After listening to ORLA's Bill Perry call the city council "naïve" and then hearing the PBA's Bernie Bottomly say a sick-time proposal adds "insult to injury" for struggling small businesses, Chamberlain dished out a strong warning.

"I hope this working group doesn't water this proposal down."

I hope city council is listening. @theriaultpdx