Sick leave is business of business, not cities

The News TribuneSeptember 27, 2013 

City-mandated paid sick leave would leave Tacoma healthier, wealthier and wiser — without costing anyone a dime. So suggest the idea’s champions.

As the adage goes, if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

The City Council, which has been contemplating such a mandate for Tacoma’s employers, shouldn’t take the idea any further. The practical issues can be debated either way; the bigger question is whether a high-tax city ought to be micromanaging the personnel policies of its businesses, particularly when many of them can shift their operations outside city limits.

Tacoma, if it mandated paid sick leave, would follow Seattle, San Francisco and a handful of other American cities in doing so. The effects of these ordinances (which mostly affect part-time workers) are hotly debated. Studies done by progressive groups suggest they have no downsides. Free-market and business outfits are generally skeptical.

One problem with the pro-paid leave studies is that they tend to lump all businesses together, then find the ordinances are working just fine — on a citywide basis. San Francisco, for example, continued to boom after passing its law in 2006.

Look inside the overall numbers, though, and problems turn up.

The Democratic-leaning Urban Institute surveyed San Francisco’s employers in 2008, and found that they’d adapted to the mandate, for the most part.

But the adaptations weren’t always good for workers. Small- and medium-sized companies with tight profit margins sometimes struggled with the reporting requirements. They complained about having to compete with businesses outside the city that didn’t face the mandate.

To stay afloat, they did what they had to. Some hired fewer part-time employees. Some delayed pay increases. Some redefined vacation days as sick time. The one-size-fits-all mandate robbed small-margin employers of flexibility as they tried to calibrate their compensation practices to the needs of their enterprises and employees.

In reality, employers don’t want people coming to work with norovirus and the flu. Even without formal sick leave, they often do pay workers to stay home on a case-by-case basis. In some companies — especially restaurants — workers themselves handle their illnesses by swapping shifts with fellow workers.

If an across-the-board sick leave mandate is a good idea, it ought to be adopted on a national or state level.

Tacoma is already a pricey place to do business. It has one of the highest property taxes in the state, and — unlike Spokane and some other rival cities — it exacts a business-and-occupation tax.

The council is now pushing to add a 2 percent tax to ratepayers’ natural gas, telephone and electric bills. Tacoma’s businesses don’t need another inflexible edict that may make it harder for them to compete, hire and keep their employees employed.

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