Susan Lund worked off and on at Fred Meyer for about 16 years, and had access to full benefits—at least in theory. But if she wanted a day off to take care of one of her children, or to recuperate from illness herself, she paid a price.
Sick days weren’t excused until employees had missed their third day of work, and only then if they produced a doctors’ note.
“Being a single mom, and being sick with the flu—or if my children had the flu—it brought me to my knees financially,” Lund says. “If I was out two days, I just lost two days and that was that, unless I had vacation days, which not everybody does.”
The company’s sick day policy also granted seven days per employee, but Lund notes it didn’t differentiate between parents and those without children. Parents not only have sick kids to care for, they’re also more likely to come into contact with illnesses their children bring home from school or day care.
“I would stay late if I had to, I worked any holiday I was asked to, just for that little bit of leniency... just in case I was late because of dropping off my kids,” she says.
Lund’s sons are now 16 and 13. She works for a different company, but her prior experience led her to push for a paid sick days ordinance that would kick in by default—without requiring her to jump through the many hoops her former employer required. Through her union, Lund connected with Family Forward Oregon, the coalition that helped spearhead a sick time ordinance in Portland two years ago, and which, this spring, pushed to adopt a statewide bill extending paid sick leave to all workers.
Portland’s ordinance, adopted in March 2013, went into effect last January. It grants up to five sick days to employees who perform the bulk of their work in the Portland area (even if their employers are headquartered elsewhere, though people working for organizations with five or fewer employees are largely exempt). These employees can’t be fired for taking time off to recuperate from illness.
Earlier this year, Sen. Elizabeth Steiner Hayward (D-Beaverton) introduced Senate Bill 454 and Rep. Jessica Vega Pederson (D-East Portland) introduced House Bill 2005, legislation that would allow workers to earn seven days of sick time—more than Portland offers now—no matter where they are in the state. The bills, similar to one that died in the 2013 legislative session, hadn’t gone to a vote by press time.
There’s reason to believe the policy can work on a larger scale. State Labor Commissioner Brad Avakian says the Bureau of Labor and Industry has received about 70 complaints so far from workers claiming their employers failed to comply with the Portland law—most of which were quickly resolved. Otherwise, he says the rollout has been fairly smooth.
Avakian also says the lack of paid sick days is a driver of gender-based wage disparities in certain industries, because caring for sick children often falls to mothers in two-income families. In addition, single mothers, who care for 22 percent of children in Oregon, typically don’t have a second income to rely on if they need time off.
According to Family Forward, low-income workers are disproportionately likely to lack paid sick time. Meanwhile, some 77 percent of earners in Oregon’s lowest income tiers have no paid sick time at all, compared to 18 percent in the state’s highest income brackets. Meanwhile women—and particularly women of color—are especially unlikely to work in industries that allow their workers to accrue sick leave.
As you can imagine, not everyone’s cheering for these statewide sick leave bills to pass.
“Since the city of Portland’s ordinance took effect, we have heard from many companies—including some that have time off policies exceeding the city requirement—that the reporting requirements are burdensome and not consistent with typical business time keeping,” says Valerie Cunningham, spokesperson for the Portland Business Alliance (PBA). She says the PBA’s also concerned about the possibility of a “patchwork” of regulations across the state—other municipalities, like Eugene, have also taken on paid sick days—and wants any state legislation to preempt local governments for consistency’s sake.
While the PBA and the Oregon Restaurant and Lodging Association (ORLA) have vocally opposed, or at least expressed concern, about sick day legislation, some of its proponents are business leaders. The more liberal Main Street Alliance—a network of 2,500 businesses across the state—has supported paid sick days, and Amanda Fritz’s January 2014 press conference announcing the Portland ordinance took place at a Grand Central Bakery location. At that time, Grand Central co-owner Piper Davis said her business already offered paid sick days as part of a full benefits package—partly out of concern for public health and safety, and partly because many bakeries are unionized and Grand Central competes with them for talent.
Michelle Carver, the sales and marketing operating manager for compostable diaper maker gDiapers, testified at a February hearing about the paid sick days law, saying her company has offered four weeks of paid leave from the beginning as part of a package of other family-friendly policies (like onsite child care). The benefit has never impacted gDiapers’ bottom line or profitability, she said.
Avakian says he supports a statewide ordinance, but as part of a platform that includes paycheck transparency, an increase in the minimum wage, and other policies that help reduce economic disparities for working families. And while Lund has moved on to an employer that’s more flexible, she’s still speaking out about the need for more family-friendly workplace policies.
“It’s not like [my employers] were treating me different,” Lund says. “I just want to help other moms not go through what I went through.”