D.C. paid sick leave law should be audited, advocates say


D.C. Council member Phil Mendelson (D-At Large) said he thinks the law’s impact so far “has been more symbolic than actual.” Mendelson said the council could consider revising the law even if the audit does not take place soon but that any such changes would be weighed next year at the earliest. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)
September 23, 2012

Nearly four years after the District enacted a law that made it mandatory for most workplaces to offer paid sick days to employees, advocacy groups and researchers are ramping up pressure on the city to review the policy to determine whether it’s been effective at protecting local workers.

The law requires the District to conduct an annual assessment of how the program is faring, but no such audit has occurred since its inception. Without the reports, these groups say, it is difficult to verify whether employers are complying with the law, whether employees have been made aware of it and whether it’s being enforced.

“I think that it was a relatively modest requirement, and I hope it’s worked well. But we should find out” if that’s the case, said D.C. Council member Jim Graham (D-Ward 1).

The D.C. auditor’s office said that it did not plan to review the measure during the current fiscal year but said an audit would take place some time in fiscal 2013, which begins in October.

In September, the Institute for Women’s Policy Research released a briefing paper encouraging officials to evaluate the law in order to find out if it’s being obeyed and to gauge its impact on the number of workers and workplaces in the city.

Before that, the Employment Justice Center led a campaign during D.C. Restaurant Week that aimed to draw attention to the fact that tipped restaurant workers are exempt from the law. Supporters of this effort say the exclusion of these employees is not only a workers’ rights issue, but a public health concern because they work so closely with food.

Advocates delivered flowers and get-well cards to servers who may, at some time, have felt compelled to go to work when they were sick. The activists also canvassed the city, gathering signatures on a petition for the cause.

When the District enacted the Accrued Sick and Safe Leave Act in 2008, it became just the second jurisdiction in the nation to mandate paid sick leave. San Francisco was the first. The city government there has not audited the law, but at least three assessments have been conducted by outside research groups. These found that most employers had not experienced negative consequences from implementing the policy. One of those studies also found that most workers were not abusing the leave policy and that more enforcement may be useful in curbing noncompliance.

Across the nation, mandatory sick leave laws continue to be rare. The Labor Department reported in August that 41 percent of Americans do not get paid leave of any kind.

Neither Virginia nor Maryland has a law that requires employers to offer paid sick days.

When it comes to these policies, “D.C. was one of the leaders, and now we might be falling behind,” said Ari Weisbard, advocacy manager at the Employment Justice Center.

The center is not lobbying the government to change the law, but Weisbard said the organization worries that the policy doesn’t go far enough. They are concerned that contractors are not covered under the current law, nor are workers who have been with their employer for less than one year.

D.C. Council member Phil Mendelson (D-At Large) said he thinks the law’s impact so far “has been more symbolic than actual.” Mendelson said the council could consider revising the law even if the audit does not take place soon but that any such changes would be weighed next year at the earliest.

While supporters praise the law for providing financial security for D.C. workers, some business owners and organizations have chafed over having to implement it.

“Yes, of course we want to offer the best benefits. But you have to leave it to us to figure out whether we can afford that or not,” said Raymond Keating, chief economist for the Small Business & Entrepreneurship Council.

And in some cases, Keating said, the benefits of this policy are sometimes quickly vanquished.

“It sounds great for the workers, but if a business is unable to find savings elsewhere, then sometimes the workers are the ones that get the short end,” Keating said.

Other jurisdictions around the country have weighed or are weighing whether to put similar laws on the books. In New York, a bill has been put before the City Council that would require businesses to offer paid sick time. However, City Council Speaker Christine Quinn and Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg oppose it.

Because Washington was a pioneer of mandatory paid sick leave regulations, it has been a laboratory that other cities and states can look to as they consider whether to institute similar rules, advocates say.

While other leaders have already taken cues from the District’s experience, “They could learn even more if we really showed them what the strengths and weaknesses were,” Weisbard said.

Sarah Halzack is a reporter and Web editor for Capital Business. She covers the local job market and the business of talent and hiring. She occasionally writes for other sections at the Post, most frequently in the form of dance reviews, dance features, book reviews and obituaries.
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