Many workers unaware of D.C. sick-leave law passed in 2008

Jose Ramos called in sick with a high fever, headache and chills this fall, but his supervisor balked at giving him the day off.
Jose Ramos called in sick with a high fever, headache and chills this fall, but his supervisor balked at giving him the day off. (Sarah L. Voisin/washington Post)
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By Ann E. Marimow
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 25, 2010

More than a year after the District became the second city in the nation to require most employers to provide paid sick leave, proponents of the law say many workers are unaware of their rights and businesses are unclear about their responsibilities.

Advocates for low-wage workers and business leaders say the Fenty administration has delayed finalizing new rules that would get the word out to the community. Until those regulations are spelled out, critics say, workers are not guaranteed protection.

"The law is ineffective if workers are unaware of their rights," D.C. Council member Phil Mendelson (D-At Large) wrote in a Jan. 6 letter to Department of Employment Services Director Joseph P. Walsh.

Walsh's office did not explain the delay. In a four-sentence reply to Mendelson last week, Walsh promised a "complete response as soon as possible."

Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) said in a statement that the administration would submit additional regulations "in the coming days to further educate the public" and that the Employment Services department would continue to "answer any questions about the law."

In March 2008, the D.C. Council unanimously passed the sick-leave measure, which requires seven paid sick days to be offered at the largest companies and three days for those with 24 or fewer employees. The District followed San Francisco in mandating paid sick leave, and the law was expected to affect about 200,000 workers.

Business leaders successfully fought to narrow the measure to exempt such workers as independent contractors, restaurant wait staff and bartenders, in addition to making exceptions for employers who can prove a hardship. But the council's endorsement was viewed by proponents as a victory for workers and for public health. With the arrival of the swine flu, many companies have started reevaluating their policies to keep sick workers at home. Legislation introduced in Congress in November would force employers with 15 or more workers to guarantee paid sick days for those with contagious conditions.

Technically, the District's law took effect in November 2008. But the office within Walsh's department that is responsible for enforcing the measure has not published the final rules to implement the law in the D.C. Register, a weekly legal bulletin. That step would require the mayor to begin a publicity campaign to notify employers and employees. Until then, D.C. Chamber of Commerce President Barbara Lang said, businesses are "under no obligation to do anything."

"People are trying to do what they think is the right thing, but there are no checks and balances," she said.

Advocacy groups said that three times in the past eight months they have met with the Office of Wage-Hour to try to speed up publication and offer assistance in notifying employers. Advocates say they have been told that the office is still working to clarify inconsistencies in the law.

"We've been waiting, and it's just excuse after excuse," said Courtney Chappell, director of advocacy for the D.C. Employment Justice Center. "Workers absolutely have these rights, but if you don't know about it, there's nothing you can do."

Chappell is concerned that until the regulations are published, there is no recourse when a complaint is filed. No one has spelled out, for instance, how employers should keep track of accrued sick time for employees, who are eligible after 12 months on the job.

Although many large employers already provide paid sick leave, the legislation was designed to cover other workers, such as security guards, dishwashers and cooks.

At a Georgetown bistro, Jose Ramos spent nearly eight years washing dishes, preparing salads and, most recently, grilling and sautéing for $12 an hour. The restaurant's sick-leave policy was casual and inconsistent, he said. His supervisor approved a day off without pay when he needed to take his nephew to the hospital but balked this fall when, Ramos said, he called with a high fever, headache and the chills.

" 'You have to come,' he said. 'If you don't come, you'll lose your job,' " Ramos, a D.C. resident, said in Spanish of his supervisor. He declined to name the restaurant because he is seeking legal advice.

Ramos should have been covered by the District's law but said he was unaware of his rights until he received a flier that Chappell's organization has distributed in the absence of word from the government. By the time Ramos learned of his rights in January, the window for filing a complaint against his employer had closed.

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