By Nikita Stewart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 5, 2008
The D.C. Council voted unanimously yesterday to make Washington the second city in the country to require employers to grant their workers paid sick leave, but not before council members added several amendments that business leaders applauded and labor leaders said significantly weakened the legislation.
Under the Accrued Sick and Safe Leave Act, full-time employees at businesses with 100 or more workers will get seven days of paid leave, and employees at businesses with 24 or fewer workers will get three days.
Advocates say the legislation could affect 200,000 workers who don't have paid sick leave, but an amendment will require new workers to wait for the benefit. That measure will require an employee to be on the job for 12 months before becoming eligible for sick leave.
The amendment was passed in a 7 to 6 vote and was followed by others that will exempt most health-care workers and waitstaff, make exceptions for businesses that can prove a hardship and require the city to do an annual assessment of the legislation's effect on businesses.
Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) must sign the bill, and Congress has 90 days to review it before it takes effect.
Council member Carol Schwartz (R-At Large), who shepherded the legislation, fought each amendment but was outmatched by colleagues who had lined up the votes for the changes.
Passage of the sick-leave bill was a victory for the chamber and business leaders who had been stunned by the council's 11 to 2 approval of the measure last month. They had vowed to press for more lenient legislation.
"What you've seen in this process is a different business community," said Barbara Lang, president and chief executive of the chamber. About the council members, she said, "You come to us for money. You come to us for all of these various things in your ward . . . but you're not listening to us. There has to be some give-and-take."
Yesterday's vote was also a victory for unions and advocates for low-wage workers, but it fell short of the victory they had spent more than a year working toward. Supporters had aggressively lobbied for the bill, hoping to make the District the second city in the country with such a sick-leave law. San Francisco was the first to require paid sick leave after voters approved it in a ballot measure in 2006. Legislation is pending elsewhere.
"The D.C. City Council took a bold and important step to ensure that more than 200,000 D.C. workers will get paid sick and safe leave they deserve, even if they must wait a year for it," said Jaime Contreras, director of the Service Employees International Union 32BJ local, in a statement released after the vote. The sick days will also apply to victims of violence and abuse.
Although many larger employers have sick-leave policies, Schwartz said the legislation could have a major impact on some workers, including security guards. Advocates note that they work in the lobbies of big companies but often do not have paid sick leave through their security firms.
Workers at medium-size businesses, those with 25 to 99 employees, will get five days of sick leave. Part-time workers will earn half the days that full-time workers receive.
John Parham, a security officer, said his employer has 1,300 workers, so he is looking forward to getting seven days of leave. "It's a great day for us," he said.
Parham, 62, has been a guard for more than five years and gets no sick leave.
Yesterday, most council members appeared concerned about protecting the city's businesses from an economic impact that Lang said would amount to a 3 percent tax on businesses.
Jack Evans (D-Ward 2), chairman of the council's Committee on Finance and Revenue, introduced most of the amendments, backed strongly by David A. Catania (I-At Large). They often argued with Schwartz, head of the Committee on Workforce Development and Government Operations. "For all of you in the audience, this is democracy at work," Evans said. "There is no back room. There is no smoke."
The three-hour debate, with its flurry of amendments, was so tense that Chairman Vincent C. Gray (D) had to interrupt to explain the proceedings. At one point, Schwartz agreed to an amendment that would have required businesses with 15 or fewer employees to grant full-time workers just one day annually. Minutes later, she reneged, saying that the stress had made her give in to the change, which had been proposed by Evans.
Evans was also criticized for agreeing to one day, because he originally wanted small businesses to be exempt from granting sick leave.
Council member Harry Thomas Jr. (D-Ward 5) said he feared that the legislation would force small businesses to fold and prevent others from starting.
Phil Mendelson (D-At Large) and Jim Graham (D-Ward 1), who opposed every amendment up for a vote, criticized their colleagues. Graham said that a government is defined by how it treats its most vulnerable residents. "That's how we determine who's civilized and who isn't," he said.
Other council members who voted for some amendments and opposed others saw the changes as a compromise.
Marion Barry (D-Ward 8) said, "We all didn't get everything we wanted . . . but we got something that was humane."
After the vote, Schwartz appeared relieved, accepting hugs and congratulations. "I've never worked harder on anything in my whole life," she said.