East Tacoma Town Hall Tells Tacoma Why Paid Sick Days Are the Right Thing to Do

Richard Smaby
Lynda Foster moderator, Rep. David Sawyer, Makini Howell, Andrew Wright and Alma Gutierrez
Lynda Foster moderator, Rep. David Sawyer, Makini Howell, Andrew Wright and Alma Gutierrez

Thursday Sept. 12 citizens of Tacoma listened to a panel discussion about the paid sick days proposal sponsored by Healthy Tacoma and soon to come before the Tacoma City Council. The discussion covered why paid sick days are the right thing to do and how to get local officials and local business on board. The 'why' is easy to understand. Nearly 41,000 Tacoma workers – or 41 percent of the workforce – have no access to paid sick leave. Childcare workers, restaurant staff and caregivers to the elderly are the least likely to receive paid sick days. The 'how' is also straight forward according the panel. The audience followed up the panel discussion with questions for the panelists.

The panel included State Representative David Sawyer, D-29th, Andrew Wright, co-director of GI-Voice and an Iraq war veteran, Makini Howell, owner of 3 restaurants in Seattle, whose parents own Quickie Too in Tacoma, Alma Gutierrez, a local waitress, and Lynda Foster, chair of Pierce County Young Democrats, as moderator.

Andrew Wright shared how a paid sick days ordinance would have a profound impact on local veterans. "Paid sick days are about getting better – as an Iraq veteran I understand how hard that is to do. After returning from the war, I was faced with trying to manage treatment for PTSD while holding down a civilian job. It’s nearly impossible to manage doctors and VA appointments when your employer provides no paid sick leave. For our service men and women, paid sick days can literally save lives."

State Representative David Sawyer pointed out that Tacoma voters overwhelmingly support the proposed ordinance: "It’s time for City Council to stand with the two-thirds of Tacoma voters that support paid sick days and take action on a paid leave ordinance that supports Tacoma’s workers and strengthens our economy."

Question from the audience: Why should we pursue this legislation here in Tacoma? Why not let the state pass a law?

Representative Sawyer was one of the sponsors of House Bill 1313, which would have mandated paid sick days for the State of Washington. He said that since that bill failed to pass, the cities need to act. Once the cities pass paid sick leave ordinances it will be easier to pass a bill at the state level. It is clearly the right thing to do, but there is a lot of misunderstanding and distrust of change that needs to be overcome.

Question: There are businesses that support this proposal. What motivates a business to support it?

Makini Howell: My employees are my neighbors. How can I tell my neighbors they can’t tend to their illness or an illness in their family? We just require a doctor’s note. I retain my employees and reduce my cost of training new hires. There isn’t really any extra layer of accounting. And it costs me very little to offer this benefit.

Diane Inman, who owns Positive Approach Dog Daycare in Tacoma, speaking from the audience, said she already provides paid sick time for her employees and it’s actually helped her bottom line. "I fully support a citywide ordinance on paid leave," said Inman. "Paid sick leave betters my business with higher employee productivity, lower turnover, less absenteeism and higher employee morale." [Editor's Note: See Diane Inman's op-ed in The Tacoma News Tribune.]

Question: What provisions should be in the ordinance?

Andrew Wright: We need to ensure that the basic ideas are there: paid sick days for the illness of an employee or to take care of a sick family member. It’s been done successfully elsewhere. I support our veterans. The trauma of war makes them especially vulnerable to illness.

Question: Seattle passed a paid sick days ordinance in 2012. What were the milestones in bringing everyone together on this in Seattle?

Makini Howell: One action that worked well was a mass gathering at the meeting of the Seattle City Council that included citizens testifying about their experiences and representatives from the health department talking about the importance to everyone’s health to avoid contact with employees that work sick. It is important to show our elected officials where the people that elect them stand. This is an action that will work well here in Tacoma.

Question: If the Tacoma City Council doesn't pass this, can the citizens of Tacoma pass an initiative?

Anders Ibsen,Tacoma City Council answered yes from the audience. The citizens of SeaTac are doing that right now. But we should focus on the effort to get the votes on the council.

Question: How do you respond to people who say that employees can fake being sick?

Makini Howell: The reality is that your employees need to work for you for months before they earn any sick days. By that time you know whether you can trust them – trust them with money, relating to the customers, to show up on time, etc. It is not that hard.

Marilyn Watkins, Policy Director of the Economic Opportunity Institute, spoke from the audience to say nationally nearly 80% of people who earn above the average hourly wage get paid sick leave compared to just 20% among the bottom 10% of earners. People without paid sick leave suffer negative health consequences and face financial losses, ranging from smaller paychecks to fewer career advancement opportunities and a more limited ability to build retirement savings. The institute has an issue brief on Implications of a Paid Sick Leave Ordinance for Tacoma.

Sandy Restrepo, Coordinator for Healthy Tacoma, said there are actions everyone can participate in. Healthy Tacoma is a coalition of more than 30 groups representing communities of color, labor, small business, civic, and faith organizations working to pass a citywide ordinance on Paid Sick Days and Safe Time for Tacoma workers and their families. Learn more at HealthyTacoma.net. Let your council member know your opinion at the city council website.