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Business groups take battle over Seattle sick-leave law to Olympia
Passed in September 2011, the law requires businesses with at least five employees working in the city to provide at least five paid sick days annually, with larger employers required to provide more.
Seattle Times Olympia bureau
OLYMPIA — A year and a half after the Seattle City Council voted to require private employers to provide paid sick leave, business groups are hoping to redo the debate on potentially more friendly turf: the state Capitol.
Republican lawmakers introduced two bills last week to repeal or weaken Seattle’s ordinance — both spurred by complaints from some of the same groups that originally opposed the measure, the sponsors said.
The Olympia debate is similar to what played out in Wisconsin last summer, when state Republicans overturned Milwaukee’s sick-leave law — leaving Seattle, San Francisco and Washington, D.C., as the only cities requiring paid sick leave for most workers.
In Olympia, the Association of Washington Business, the Washington Restaurant Association and other business groups say they’re hoping for a fuller discussion than they got in Seattle, where they felt a flawed ordinance was fast-tracked to approval.
“It was moved through like a freight train,” said George Allen of the Greater Seattle Chamber of Commerce, which also is pushing for repeal.
The proposals are unlikely to make it through a divided Legislature and a Democratic governor unless they become part of a grand, end-of-session bargain.
But the bills’ genesis illustrates how some business-backed ideas are gaining prominence this session after Republicans effectively took control of the Senate when two Democrats crossed the aisle to join their ranks.
5 paid sick days
The Seattle City Council took up the sick-leave proposal in May 2011 and approved it 8-to-1 that September.
The law requires businesses with at least five employees working in the city to provide at least five paid sick days annually, with larger employers required to provide more.
Nearly 200,000 employees without paid leave were expected to be helped.
Washington Restaurant Association President Anthony Anton said his organization wanted the council to move more slowly, but ultimately did not oppose the ordinance.
However, Anton said, the group has received “probably 100” complaints since the law took effect in September 2012.
Some of the loudest came from businesses based outside Seattle who had to comply with the ordinance because the law covers any employee who spends at least 240 hours working in the city in a given year.
“These employers are to be tracking their employees’ hours from the moment they hit the city limits,” Anton said. “The record-keeping requirements to do that are incredible. It’s tremendously burdensome.”
Elliott Bronstein of Seattle’s Office for Civil Rights, which enforces the ordinance, said the out-of-town businesses were never a major target. Only about 10 of the 51 warning letters his office has sent so far have been to businesses based outside Seattle, he said.
But the Association of Washington Business heard many of the same complaints, including from some companies based outside the state. So in the first week of the legislative session, association lobbyist Kris Tefft said he approached lawmakers with an idea, dubbed the “tentacles’’ bill, to limit Seattle’s reach only to businesses located in the city.
Two conservative freshman Republicans signed on to lead the effort: Sen. John Braun, R-Centralia, and Rep. Matt Manweller, R-Ellensburg.
Braun and Manweller also agreed to sponsor a second bill that would eliminate Seattle’s paid sick leave entirely.
“It’s simply a cleaner way to (get at the problem),” Braun said.
The Democratic caucus reacted angrily when the two measures were introduced last week.
“I don’t know what’s going on here,” said Sen. Karen Keiser, D-Kent. “I guess they just like to beat up on poor people.”
Seattle city officials said they were not informed of the proposals and haven’t yet formed a response strategy.
Mayor Mike McGinn plans to talk with Braun this week. But he signaled in a statement he will oppose any changes to the law.
“Our economic-growth strategy is working here in Seattle,” McGinn said. “The state Legislature shouldn’t mess with it.”
The bills are scheduled for a Senate hearing Wednesday. Passage there is expected.
The “tentacles bill” was scheduled for a House hearing, but committee Chairman Mike Sells, D-Everett, pulled the plug because the bill “had no possibility of actually getting out’’ of the House, he said.
His committee instead passed a bill that essentially would expand Seattle’s sick-leave law across the state.
Brian M. Rosenthal:
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