Paid Sick Leave
3:25 pm
Fri September 20, 2013

Businesses Adjust To Seattle's Paid Sick Leave Law

Last September, Seattle began requiring employers with five or more employees to provide paid sick leave. The requirement was controversial. Some businesses feared it would affect their bottom lines. Now a series of new reports aims to gauge the law’s impact. The latest one, commissioned by the city of Seattle, looks at how employers have dealt with the mandate. 

When Makaylaa Powers first heard about Seattle’s Paid Sick Leave Ordinance, her reaction was dread. “It was like, what, oh no, please,” she said. “Every little piece of change adds hours of work.”

Powers is executive director and owner of Visiting Angels in Kirkland, a home-care agency that provides elderly clients with non-medical services like bathing, light housekeeping, and other personal needs. The  agency is a franchise, so it's up to individual owners to develop their own personnel policies.

Powers says she supports the intent behind the ordinance. In fact, before the law went into effect a year ago, she was already providing her employees a similar benefit. For every 1,000 hours they worked, they earned three days of time off. They could use those days for vacation or for sick leave.

But here’s the snag: Powers’ agency serves clients on the Eastside and in North Seattle. So for Powers, the new law meant a record-keeping nightmare. “My issue was, how am I going to track and manage this?” she said. “And because I was already giving people time off, but not in the fashion that the Seattle law created for me, it was a little easier to makes it happen.”

Powers took a closer look. She employs 148 employees and realized the impact wouldn’t be as huge as she feared. The accrued time she offered is pretty close to the city’s new requirements. Powers also figured out her bookkeeping software could help her keep track of hours worked in Seattle.

In the end, Powers kept her original paid time off policy for all employees. Those who work in Seattle also  earn additional paid sick leave. “After doing it for over a year, we finally figured out how to make it simple and workable,” she said. “On their paychecks we separate it out as well because we call the Eastside vacation time, vacation time. Anything that’s earned in Seattle is called paid time off. That’s how we know the difference.”

Powers’ experience is not uncommon. In a recent report evaluating Seattle’s Paid Sick Leave Ordinance, many employers said there was initial confusion. But a few months into the law, most businesses knew whether they were affected and figured out what to do.  

Jennie Romich is associate professor at the University of Washington’s School of Social Work. She’s been commissioned to evaluate the law’s impact for the city of Seattle. For this most recent assessment Romich and her colleagues interviewed about two dozen employers.

Romich summed up employers’ experience this way: “Change is happening; it’s not painless, but it happens and then people build it into their way of doing business.”

Romich says some employers had to create new policies. Others, like Powers, redesigned existing ones. Still others extended their policies to include more people.

That’s what Dominic Engressei did at his office. Engressei is office manager at a different Visiting Angels franchise, this one in West Seattle. He says before the law took effect, only his full-time employees got paid sick leave. But under the new ordinance, part-time employees qualified for paid sick leave too.

Like at the other Visiting Angels franchise, some employees worked in Seattle while some worked beyond the city limits. But Engressei took a different approach. He made a blanket policy to extend the leave benefit to all of his 24 employees. Engressei says it was the fair thing to do.“We said okay, it’s worth it to us to invest in these long-term employees because it’s going to be the people that stick around and work for you.”

Engressei says initially it took some time before employees realized they were covered under the new leave policy. After a year, thought, he hasn’t seen an increase in people calling in sick. “At first we thought it might be abused a little bit,” he said. “But surprisingly enough we’ve only paid out about 40 hours total since it started. It tells us how honest the employees are.”

The cost of complying with the paid sick leave law was another initial concern of many employers. That’s the focus of the next evaluation, due out in March.