On Tuesday, April 24, the Portland City Council’s Health and Human Services Committee convened to take public comment on a proposed ordinance that would require businesses provide paid sick leave to employees. Championed by Mayor Ethan Strimling, the proposal forces companies to provide 1 hour of paid sick leave time for every 30 hours worked by an employee.
Numerous appeals were made from large and small businesses to demonstrate the burden this ordinance would apply, enough for this observer to believe the council will take the measure back to the drawing board.
Employers who want to be competitive and attract the best applicants will provide workplace benefits, but as Suzanne Foley-Ferguson, owner of Beal’s Ice Cream on Veranda Street reminded the council, “one size does not fit all.” Plain and simple, this is what is wrong with government determining social policy. It does not take into account individual needs or varying degrees of policies that businesses currently employ.
As currently written, the ordinance does not allow for a probationary period before an employee can earn paid time off, so a high school student hired to scoop ice cream for their first summer job can start earning time off on day one, before the employer knows anything about their work ethic or commitment. The ordinance would also require businesses to track and report to the city how much sick time has been accrued and utilized by their employees.
This means employers with different policies would have to separate their current policy (which might not distinguish between sick time and vacation time, for instance) from the city’s mandated policy. Human Resource representatives from MaineMed and Mercy Hospital outlined the administrative burden this creates for larger firms.
The many workers that voiced their displeasure with having to go to work sick have real concerns. Going to work while sick is not ideal, however accruing sick time from your employer is not a right as many claimed who rallied on the steps outside of city hall before the hearing. At the same time, many workers will go to work sick, not because they don’t have paid time off, but because they don’t want to leave their coworkers high and dry.
What was also missing from their argument is the connection between a mandatory policy for all businesses and a higher quality of life for workers. As much as the City Council believes in their own power, they cannot ensure the health of every man, woman, and child in the city. To purport to do so demonstrates blindness to reality.
It’s not that enacting this mandate alone would cause businesses to close up shop, or move to South Portland, although I imagine it might cause some to consider it. But, this program, as well as other government mandates like the increasing minimum wage can amount to an “accrued trauma” for business, causing them to possibly hold out on investments and improvements or cut hours.
This does not occur in a vacuum. As employers have to compete for workers, businesses have to compete for customers, and in the service and tourism industries, margins are thin.
It’s the easiest thing in the world for Councilors to say that this is “the right thing to do” from a comfy chair behind the dais. The hard choices in government happen when you understand the nature of government. Mandates mean higher costs to do business, or fines. When the ordinances and laws you’re passing carry the force of law–fines and jail time—there is a much higher threshold to prove the proposal will benefit the city.
Entrepreneurs start and build businesses to serve their families and their communities. If Mayor Strimling and the city counselors are so confident to assume that Portland’s proprietors can withstand more costs without stifling growth, their privilege is showing.
It’s worth noting the City of Austin is currently being sued for their recently enacted paid sick leave ordinance. Plaintiffs argue that the Texas Minimum Wage Act, which prohibits municipalities from requiring workers be paid more than the Federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour, preempts this ordinance since it would require employers to pay workers for hours not worked, effectively raising the minimum wage above the federal level.