Washington View: Seattle sick leave policy knows no boundaries

By Don Brunell, Columbian business commentator

Published:

 
photoDon Brunell recently retired as president of the Association of Washington Business.

There's an old saying, "What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas." Well, what happens in Seattle should stay in Seattle.

Seattle officials had a bad idea a couple of years ago, and now some state lawmakers want to expand that bad idea statewide.

The bad idea is Seattle's paid sick leave policy that applies to any business with five or more employees, even if that business isn't located in Seattle.

Approved in 2011, the controversial ordinance says that, if one or more of your employees spends more than 240 hours a year -- or about 10 percent of their time -- in Seattle on business, you must pay them pro-rated benefits, even if your company is located in Everett, New York or Milan, Italy.

To ensure they comply with the law, employers must keep track of every minute their employees are within the city limits of Seattle, delivering flowers, picking up packages, making sales calls or attending a conference or training seminar.

Employers must track the hours of "occasional basis" employees to:

• Determine if the employee meets the 240 hours.

• Track the employee's accrual and use of covered leave.

"Occasional basis" employees, once covered by the ordinance, remain covered for the current and following calendar year.

Covered leave may only be used in Seattle (or for time the employee is scheduled to perform work in Seattle).

Employers must provide to "occasional basis" employees conspicuous and accessible physical or electronic notice of the entitlement to paid sick/safe time, the amount and terms of use, the prohibition of retaliation against employees who request or use paid sick/safe time, and each employee's right to file a complaint if paid sick/safe time is denied or if the employee is retaliated against.

Just reading the rules is confusing enough. Imagine trying to comply with them.

One wonders why, if this was such a good idea, the Seattle ordinance allows labor unions to request waivers to exempt their employees?

To determine if a policy makes sense, try this simple exercise: transplant the policy to another environment. What if your landlord charged you a different amount of rent each month based on how much time you, your spouse and your kids spent in each room of your house?

Chances are you'd think your landlord had a screw loose.

Seattle officials see nothing wrong with their policy, but one wonders how they'd feel if another city turned the tables. Imagine their reaction if a neighboring city passed an ordinance exempting Seattle companies from their paid leave obligations while their employees were working in that neighboring city.

Seattle officials would likely see such a policy as an outrageous intrusion.

Fortunately, the legislation to expand Seattle's overreaching paid sick leave policy statewide didn't make it to a vote.

However, a bill to restrict such policies passed the state Senate. Senate Bill 5726, known as the "city limits" bill, would prevent cities or counties from applying paid sick leave policies unless the employer is physically located in the jurisdiction and covered employees work there at least 85 percent of the time.

The measure passed the Senate on March 22 but didn't survive the cutoff in the House.

Lawmakers should take up this common sense limitation again next year or, better yet, reconsider it in the upcoming special session. After all, what happens in Seattle should stay in Seattle.

Don Brunell is president of the Association of Washington Business, Washington state's chamber of commerce.