Photo by Marcy Stamper

Employees at businesses large and small around the valley started accruing time for paid sick leave on Jan. 1. Hank’s Harvest Foods, owned by Hank Konrad, center, has about 75 employees.

Employees can accrue time for themselves or family

By Marcy Stamper

Workers will no longer have to choose between going to work sick or giving up badly needed income in Washington state. A new state law that went into effect Jan. 1 guarantees paid sick leave for almost all workers, either for themselves or to care for a family member.

Under the new law, workers accrue one hour of paid sick leave for every 40 hours worked. They can start using the paid time off after 90 days, starting April 1.

Workers are entitled to use their sick leave for a physical or mental illness, injury, diagnostic procedure, or preventive medical care. The paid leave can also be used to care for a child or other family member for the same purposes. Family members include a spouse or domestic partner, child or grandchild, parent or grandparent or sibling.

The time off can also be used if a school or daycare has been closed by a public official for a health-related reason. It also applies to absences that qualify under the state’s Domestic Violence Leave Act.

People can carry over up to 40 hours of paid leave to the next year. The law includes protections against retaliation. Employers must notify their staff of the paid leave and how it works by March 1.

The new benefit is part of a law approved by Washington voters in November 2016. The voter-approved initiative probably got more attention for its other provisions, which raise the minimum wage each year through 2020. In addition to paid sick leave, workers must be paid at least $11.50 an hour in 2018, the second-highest minimum wage in the country. Only workers in the District of Columbia get more — $12.50 an hour.

Surprised by law

An informal survey of people tending shops, restaurants and hotels in Winthrop and Twisp found that few were aware they’ll be able to get paid if they’re out sick.

Photo by Marcy Stamper

Workers will be able to take time off when they’re sick without having to worry about losing income.

Many were surprised that it would apply to them, but almost all workers — including part-time and seasonal employees — are covered. The law also doesn’t exempt small businesses.

Many people said they have often worked even if they weren’t feeling well because they couldn’t afford to lose the income. The law is a particular boon for those in the food-service business, since they are barred from working if they have a contagious condition.

“I’m glad to see it — you can’t have someone who’s obviously ill waiting on you. In this industry, it’s really necessary,” said one restaurant server.

“People have no choice because there’s no one to work for you, or they can’t afford not to work. People have kids to feed,” said another.

A worker at a boutique in Winthrop said she’d never asked about sick leave but said her employer is flexible. But when she had the flu, she — like most people — went to work.

In fact, some people are so accustomed to the status quo that they found it an odd concept to be paid if they’re not at work. “It doesn’t make sense to be paid if you’re not here,” said one.

A desk clerk at a motel was surprised to hear about the law. “I’ll have to Google it,” he said. Others were already aware of the law, either because their employer had informed them or because they’d seen notifications from the state. A barista at the Rocking Horse Bakery said she’d heard about it from a friend.

Lorrie Hammer, the front-end manager at the Evergreen IGA in Winthrop, said she’d seen the official announcement posted in the store’s office. But employees whose jobs don’t take them into the office may not be aware of it yet, she said. Most IGA employees have a set weekly schedule, but managers tend to be flexible and allow people to come in on other days to make up for lost time, said Hammer.

At Hank’s Harvest Foods in Twisp, store managers told their staff about the change a few months ago. “It’s something we hadn’t offered before, and now we’re able to offer it,” said Hank’s bookkeeper Pam Purtell.

Hank’s 75 employees — the majority are full-time, with a few part-time or seasonal workers — take their jobs seriously, so Purtell wondered how many would use the time off. But the paid leave will be an advantage since some of Hank’s employees have used paid vacation time when they were sick, she said.

Making adjustments

Because so many local businesses are small, when an employee is out sick, co-workers often pick up the slack or owners and managers cover the shift. At Cascades Outdoor Store in Winthrop, they usually cover for each other when someone is out sick, said co-owner Amy Sweet. “It’ll be interesting to see what effect it has since it takes time to accumulate hours,” she said.

Sweet said the possibility of paid sick time will have to be accounted for in budgets. “Maybe it will affect the decision to call someone to cover. We might just muddle through,” she said.

Steve Mitchell, co-owner of the Rocking Horse Bakery, said the law is simply part of new payroll policies. “I don’t have a problem with it — it isn’t burdensome,” he said. But ultimately higher wages and other expenses will be reflected in prices at all businesses, he said.

Washington joins seven states, including Oregon and California, plus the District of Columbia, in mandating paid sick leave. Connecticut passed the first law in 2011. Not all eight offer the benefit to all workers. Washington’s law is among the most comprehensive, mandating paid sick leave for all but some farmworkers, executives, and those involved in forest protection and fire prevention.

Because the text of the initiative is so complicated, the Washington State Department of Labor & Industries is still trying to determine exactly which workers are covered, according to Tim Church, a spokesperson for the agency.

There is no federal requirement for paid sick leave. The Family and Medical Leave Act allows employees of public agencies and private companies with 50 or more employees to take time off to care for a family member without fear of losing their job, but doesn’t mandate that they get paid.

What’s been called “presenteeism” — going to work while ill — has been found to increase the incidence of illness. One study using data compiled by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that private-sector employees (who were less apt to have paid sick time) were less likely to take time off when they had the flu, resulting in more and longer-lasting cases of flu.

Higher minimum wage

The law also includes four years of increases in the minimum wage. Last year the initiative guaranteed an hourly wage of $11, up from $9.47. The minimum is $11.50 in 2018 and rises to $12 in 2019 and $13.50 in 2020.

Twenty-eight other states guarantee their workers a higher wage than the federal minimum of $7.25 an hour, and 14 use the federal minimum. Two states — Georgia and Wyoming — have a minimum wage of $5.15 an hour, and five, all in the southeast, have no minimum wage, meaning workers there get the federal minimum. The federal minimum wage was last increased in 2010.

Tips can’t be considered as part of the minimum wage. One change in the law is that if a restaurant assesses a service charge, if there’s no explanation on the menu as to who receives it, the service fee goes to the employee who brought it in (generally waitstaff or a barista), said Church.