Terry Proios, owner of 14 Carrot Cafe, doesn't think the city should force her to pay sick employees for missing work.
Terry Proios, owner of 14 Carrot Cafe, doesn’t think the city should force her to pay sick employees for missing work.
Proios, 68, is the kind of neighborhood restaurant owner who, after 19 years, still stops to chat with regulars, pours the ice water herself and helps man the cash register at her Eastlake cafe.
When one of her eight part-time employees misses a day — and she can’t find a replacement — it’s Proios who picks up the slack.
Under a Seattle City Council proposal, Proios and every business owner in the city would be forced to provide paid sick leave for their workers. Bigger businesses would have to offer more paid days than smaller businesses, but all companies would be required, for the first time, to compensate employees for missing work for medical reasons, most often because they or a family member were sick.
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About two dozen small-business owners have joined labor unions and civil-rights organizations to support the measure. Groups representing the broader business community decry it as a government intrusion.
Proios, like many small-business owners, doesn’t know the intimate details of the proposal because she spends her days managing her cafe, not following local politics. At first blush, the mandate seems ill-conceived, she said.
“I’m not trying to be a tyrant or anything,” Proios said, adding that when her employees need a day off, she gives it to them — unpaid. She’s wary of adding paid sick days to her expenses, and isn’t sure she can afford it. The city needs to be fair to employers, “so we don’t drown,” she said.
Seattle would be among the first cities in the country with such a rule, after Washington, D.C., and San Francisco.
No one knows the extent to which Seattle workers do not receive paid sick leave. The Economic Opportunity Institute, a local policy think tank advocating for the Seattle mandate, took national figures from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics and applied them locally to estimate that 190,000 Seattle jobs — about 38 percent of jobs within the city — do not get paid sick leave.
Proponents across the country have cast paid sick leave as a public-health and food-safety issue because most workers within the food industry don’t get paid sick days. Without an incentive to stay home, workers will come to work and risk getting customers sick, too, they say.
So far, 30 small businesses have endorsed the City Council proposal, including about a dozen high-profile restaurant owners, such as Jody Hall of Cupcake Royale and Molly Moon Neitzel of Molly Moon’s Homemade Ice Cream.
But some of the city’s largest business associations, such as the Greater Seattle Chamber of Commerce, the Downtown Seattle Association, Seattle Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) and the Seattle Restaurant Alliance, oppose it and are demanding the city first study how businesses would be affected.
“We could be passing a law that could be negatively impacting the people it’s intended to help … We don’t know,” said David Black, legislative director for Seattle SHRM.
“That hasn’t been the result in the cities that do this,” said Neitzel, one of the proposal’s earliest supporters.
She points to San Francisco, where most businesses reported no impact on profitability and no reduction of other benefits in a survey conducted by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, a research group based in Washington, D.C.
Neitzel started offering paid sick leave at Molly Moon’s in April. Among her roughly 50 employees working at four shops and an ice-cream truck, she paid out 15 hours of sick time in the first three months, amounting to about $200 in added costs, she said.
Peter Glick, who employs about 25 people at Roxy’s Diner and Backdoor at Roxy’s in Fremont, estimated offering paid sick days would cost him no more than half a week’s payroll, about $6,000 a year, or roughly a 2 percent increase in labor costs.
“It’s not a lot of money,” he said.
Other than attending a public forum on the issue, Glick hasn’t been an activist like other restaurant owners.
In fact, Glick was an early skeptic, thinking the law would saddle him with unnecessary costs. After a careful read, he became neutral — not protesting the mandate, not advocating for it — but he thinks offering paid sick days wouldn’t cost much and engenders employee loyalty.
Many of the high-profile business owners now supporting the mandate didn’t at first. Between May and June, a group of small-business owners helped revise the proposal in a way that was more palatable to them. In the process, they changed sides and added political heft to the movement.
“It’s not the concept that I was against,” said David Meinert, owner of The 5 Point Cafe and Big Mario’s New York Style Pizza. “I thought that the initial proposal went too far and required too much.” That initial proposal forced businesses with the equivalent of 10 to 250 full-time employees to offer nine paid sick days.
The revised version only asks for nine days from firms with at least 250 full-time employees; it also exempts businesses in their first two years and allows employers to use shift-swapping as an alternative to paying for a sick day.
It isn’t clear whether the businesses endorsing the proposal represent a majority of the small-business community. Many are established restaurants that already offer a paid sick-time benefit or had plans to include one soon.
Joe Fugere, owner of Tutta Bella Neapolitan Pizzeria, said that when Tutta Bella started in 2004, he had eight employees and offered no benefits. With financial success and popularity, he expanded to 180 employees, and added a progression of employee benefits: first vacation, then personal time off, then medical insurance, and in the near future, paid sick time.
If he could do it all over, would he give paid sick leave from the beginning?
“That’s a really good question,” Fugere said, adding that he thinks he would, now knowing the potential public-health risks of not doing so. At the time, he said, “it didn’t feel like the number one priority.”
In July, the Greater Seattle Chamber of Commerce launched an email campaign urging businesses to tell the City Council it should hold off on the requirement until after conducting an economic-impact study.
In an emailed statement June 22, George Allen, the chamber’s senior vice president of government relations, said the chamber did not endorse the proposal and maintained “it would hurt employers and would not provide employees with the overall benefits packages that they desire.”
“We’re not part of the ‘hell no’ camp,” Allen said in an interview a month later.
He added that he expected some version of the law to pass, but the chamber was pushing for industry-specific exemptions, similar to restaurants’ use of shift-swapping, that would lessen the law’s negative impacts.
Councilmember Nick Licata, who introduced the legislation, has invited business-friendly amendments from the opposition. He is not swayed by claims that the mandate would kill a business, however.
“This is not the critical element that determines whether businesses are going to be successful. There are so many factors,” Licata said.
Still, some modifications are likely. A revised bill could include exemptions for extremely small businesses, as well as a longer delay — changed from three months to six months — before workers could take paid sick time at the largest businesses, he said.
A council committee will discuss paid sick leave again at its 2 p.m. meeting Wednesday.
The full council would not vote on the proposal until September at the earliest.
J.B. Wogan: 206-464-2206 or firstname.lastname@example.org