Illustration by Joseph Harmon

THIS SUMMER, Portland will hash out the mechanics of its new paid sick leave ordinance, set to take effect next January. The ordinance will greatly expand protections for Portland workers. Yet many will be left out.

Employees of Metro and the federal, state, and Multnomah County governments don't qualify for the ordinance's protections. That's because the city can't dictate policies to government bodies outside itself. And while many of those left out are covered by sick-leave policies or union contract clauses of their own, this isn't true, in particular, for Metro's legion of temps.

Roughly half of Metro's workforce is temporary and without paid sick leave. Unions especially are hoping the city ordinance forces the regional government—which oversees a handful of services from recycling to the convention centers and the Oregon Zoo—to adopt its own sick leave policy.

"It was abusive working there as a part-timer," says a former zoo temp who asked to remain anonymous.

Zoo temps are allowed to work 1,040 hours a year—well beyond the 240-hour sick-time minimum outlined in the city ordinance.

Employees who spoke with the Mercury say "temp" is a misnomer because many have been at Metro for years. They also say people frequently work ill because they don't have paid sick leave—a factor some blame for last year's outbreak of food poisoning at the zoo.

"Sickness goes through the zoo workforce just like a high school... because we don't have sick days," says another zoo worker speaking anonymously out of fear of retaliation. "You know, maybe the sick guy shouldn't be serving food."

The zoo runs on temps, and it's not alone. Temporary workers also staff the Oregon Convention Center and Portland Expo Center. According to Metro spokesman Jim Middaugh, Metro has 500 to 700 temps, depending on the season, and none receive paid sick leave.

"The city can't tell the state, Metro, or county how to treat their employees," says Family Forward Oregon Executive Director Andrea Paluso.

Paluso's group was the force behind Portland's ordinance and failed attempt in Salem to create a similar statewide law. She says the ordinance had to be narrowly tailored to affect only private sector and Portland employees. But she says that shouldn't stop Metro from adopting its own sick-leave policy. And, she says, they might have to.

"I don't think it's going to sit well with small businesses that are implementing a policy that... Metro wouldn't do."

Metro has noticed the city ordinance is changing the game. Middaugh says Metro's elected seven-person council has "watched the ordinance closely" and has asked Metro administration to look into a possible policy.

"Council and the leadership of Metro are going to work hard to come up with sick leave and other compensation packages that make this a great place to work," says Middaugh.

However, Middaugh noted this wasn't an official resolution. He also couldn't nail down how or when a new policy would take effect, adding it would need to be hammered out with Metro's unions.

"We have to... make sure we are working as hard as we can to make sure we are providing sick leave and health care," says Metro Councilor Sam Chase, who represents the Portland-heavy District 5.

Chase—who also directs the nonprofit Coalition of Community Health Clinics—confirmed that he and other councilors have been discussing sick leave at Metro. "I think there is a lot of commitment."

Chase was vague about how or if paid sick leave would be implemented and what role Metro Council would play.

Union representatives told the Mercury they hadn't heard of any Metro-wide sick-leave policy being discussed.

Laborers' International Union of North America Local 483 currently represents some of the zoo's temporary workforce, but not food workers.

"Our union is committed to working with Metro to see that they follow the city's lead on this important public health issue," Richard Beetle, Local 483's business manager, wrote in an email.

In the past, Local 483 has tried to publicize the public health risk posed by sick workers handling cash and food at the city's largest public meeting spots.

Local 483 reps say the union has spoken privately with Metro councilors about sick leave and will continue to do so. The union's contract with Metro expires next January, the same time the city sick-leave ordinance takes effect. Local 483 reps say paid sick leave will be a top priority—just as it's been for other unions.

As of press time, Jaimie Sorenson, an organizer with the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees Council 75, was in bargaining with Metro. She told the Mercury she's trying to use the city ordinance as "a reference point" as she works to get paid sick leave for janitors at the convention and expo centers. But she's not optimistic.

"As far as Metro goes, I don't think they care," she says, "because they're not legally mandated to care."