Council Advances Sick-Leave Bill in D.C.
Workers Would Get Paid for Absences; Businesses Balk

By Nikita Stewart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 6, 2008

The D.C. Council gave initial approval yesterday to a bill that would grant paid sick leave to all workers in the city, voting 11 to 2 after four hours of debate in front of an overflow crowd of T-shirt and sticker-wearing people on both sides of the issue.

If the council approves the Accrued Sick and Safe Leave Act next month, the District would break ground in expanding workers' benefits. San Francisco is the only U.S. city with a similar comprehensive law.

Advocates say that more than 200,000 D.C. workers who do not get paid sick leave would be affected. The bill would allow victims of violence and abuse to take paid leave.

The vote occurred after an effort to table the legislation failed in a 7 to 6 vote. Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray (D), Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) and members of the city's business community could not persuade a majority of the council to set the bill aside for more deliberation.

An amendment was also added yesterday that would ease the requirements for businesses. Large businesses would be defined as those with 100 or more workers and would have to provide up to seven days of paid leave to full-time workers. Small businesses would be those with 24 or fewer employees and would have to provide three days. The original bill defined large businesses as those with 51 workers or more and smaller ones as those with 10 or fewer.

The amendment would require employers with 25 to 99 workers to grant full-time employees five paid sick days. Part-time workers would earn up to half of the days earned by their full-time peers.

Union leaders and other bill supporters declared victory in what had become a fight against the city's influential Chamber of Commerce, whose lobbying helped to change unanimous council backing nine months ago to a split that threatened the bill yesterday.

"I was actually dancing," said Kathy Howell, recording secretary of the Service Employees International Union Local 32BJ. "This is going to impact 6,000 members that we have. . . . When you stop to think that workers do not get paid sick leave, it's just ridiculous."

Council members David A. Catania (I-At Large) and Jack Evans (D-Ward 2) were the dissenters.

The 11 to 2 vote did not reflect the support among council members to keep the bill from being tabled. But when the motion to table failed, four members -- Gray, Yvette M. Alexander (D-Ward 7), Kwame R. Brown (D-At Large) and Harry Thomas Jr. (D-Ward 5) -- joined the majority favoring the legislation.

Thomas said members who favored tabling were never against paid sick leave. "I think, at the end of the day, it was a difference about how we get there," he said.

Most council members said the plight of workers in the city, who risk losing their jobs if they take time off for illness, outweighed the concerns of business owners who said that they will have to cut staff to provide the sick leave.

Council member Carol Schwartz (R-At Large), who has shepherded the legislation since it was introduced in May, refused to table the bill. "If it was right then, it is certainly right today," she said, referring to the fact that all council members who were in office in May signed on to sponsor the bill.

Disappointed business leaders said they did not know what they would do next. Some council members requested that the bill be amended before the vote next month to protect small businesses from financial hardships.

"It's a lesson for us," said Barbara Lang, president and chief executive officer of the chamber. "Some members of the council do not appreciate businesses and the enormous amount of taxes we pay. We're going to have to figure out how to show them."

The chamber, known more for its behind-the-scenes brokering, took a different approach yesterday by having its members wear T-shirts saying that the bill meant "Less Jobs for DC Residents!!" Supporters of the bill said they were disturbed by what appeared to be hired hands -- people bused in to wear the shirts and hold seats for business leaders as early as 8:30 a.m. The meeting started at 10 a.m.

"When our members arrived, they left," said Janene D. Jackson, vice president of external affairs for the chamber, who said that the chamber did not pay the T-shirt wearers.

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