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Portland's Business Owners Split On Proposed Sick Leave Plan

A proposed city ordinance would require most Portland businesses to offer earned sick leave to their employees. City Commissioner Amanda Fritz is championing the idea, which is scheduled to come up for a hearing in City Council Thursday. As Virginia Alvino reports, members of Portland’s business community are split on the issue.

Jim Houser is the co-owner of Hawthorne Auto Clinic in Portland. He’s also co-chair of the Main Street Alliance of Oregon, which represents small-businesses throughout the state.

His shop sits on busy Hawthorne Avenue, where it’s been for 30 years. It’s clear he’s personally invested in all his employees.

Seasonal flu (file photo)

Seasonal flu (file photo)

Connecticut Dept. Of Public Health

He explained, “Nick goes running in the middle of the afternoon, he’s not here right now. He takes a late lunch and goes jogging. John had a doctor’s appointment.”

Nick McCoy and John Mayer are two of the Auto Clinic’s 11 full-time employees. They and 2 more part-time employees receive benefits that include sick time. Houser believes mandating sick leave is long overdue. He likens it to minimum wage and workers’ compensation.

Houser said, “There are basic workplace standards that we’ve come to accept now that at one time were considered ‘oh my goodness it’s gonna bring the world down.’”

But not all business owners are so enthusiastic about the proposed ordinance.

Across the river in Southwest Portland, Pamela Ake takes calls and writes emails.

She owns Accounting Connections, a small staffing agency. It places finance and accounting professionals in companies throughout the metro area. Ake and her business partner, Cassie Gorrell Leonard, are concerned about the long-term ramifications of the ordinance.

She told OPB, “How does it affect you on a big picture? If you work for someone who can’t afford to do this and positions are eliminated, how is that going to effect you down the line.”

Accounting Connections has been around since 1996, and used to have a larger staff. A tough economic climate forced cut backs, and now three women work in the office.

But the women in the office aren’t the only staff. The company has a fluctuating number of employees because they place individuals in other businesses. So, on a given week there can be anywhere from 30-50 people working on the Accounting Connections payroll. So they wouldn’t qualify for the exemption in the ordinance, for businesses with fewer than five employees.

Ake is worried about things like the administrative cost of tracking hours, among other things.

She believes business owners should be able to determine what benefits they offer.

Ake said, “Most companies, if they can afford to give benefits, they already do. Four years ago we had benefits for everybody, including the people that worked out in the field, and we’ve had to cut back, only because we can’t afford them. When we get to a place where business picks back up, I’m sure we will put those benefits back in.”

The proposed ordinance would affect all businesses operating within Portland city limits. Employees would earn one hour of paid sick leave for every thirty hours worked. This would be capped at 40 hours per calendar year.

Commissioner Amanda Fritz says she’s optimistic about the ordinance passing.

She explained, “The principle I think is shared by the other members of the council that people should be able to stay home when they’re sick, they should be able to stay home when their children are sick without worrying about whether they’re going to pay the rent.”

Several business groups oppose the proposal. The board of the Portland Business Alliance has not officially voted on the issue yet. But representative Megan Doern says she’s heard from a lot of businesses which are quote “very frustrated” with the ordinance and the process.

Houser says the mandate would be good for business and contribute to employee retention. Even though his auto shop would already be in compliance, he doesn’t understand why some small business owners oppose it.

Houser said,  “In fact there are costs for example for people who are off sick longer, because they cant miss a day or two when they’re sick so then they get really sick and have to miss 3 or 4 days while they recover. If they leave to find better benefits, then they have the cost of hiring, they have the cost of retraining.”

But Ake and her business partner think such a mandate will create more barriers for small businesses in the city, and they say it makes Portland less competitive with other parts of the state.

Ake and Leonard said, “It needs to be done statewide,instead of in a little piece because Portland is becoming that island of things that small businesses or any businesses are not liking what they see. And they’re going to continue to go to the suburbs. Its developed quite a reputation, and this isn’t helping.”

Supporters and opponents of the ordinance will have a chance to present their views at Thursday’s hearing. Voting is expected to take place in a few weeks. If approved, the ordinance would go into effect in January of 2014.

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