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'I Also Have Rent To Pay:' Many Small Business Owners Oppose Paid Sick Leave Ordinance

Patty Wight
Maine Public
John Ochira, vice chair of South Sudanese Community Association of Maine, Speaks At The Paid Sick Leave Rally in Portland

Advocates for paid sick leave rallied on the steps of Portland City Hall Tuesday night in support of a proposed ordinance that would allow all workers in the city to earn sick time off with pay. But at a public hearing immediately after the rally, some employers said the benefits of paid sick leave also come with significant costs to certain businesses.

Ten states and about 30 municipalities across the United States have adopted paid sick leave policies, and local supporters hope Portland will join the list.

At the rally, Eliza Townsend of the Maine Women's Lobby said too many workers don't have that benefit.

"An estimated nineteen-thousand Portland workers cannot currently take even one day off without pay when they or a loved one are sick, and that is just not right," Townsend said.

Townsend's group joined with the Southern Maine Workers' Center to draft a proposed ordinance that would allow all workers in the city – seasonal, part time and full time – to earn up to six days of paid sick leave per year.

At the rally, Philippa Adam of the Southern Maine Workers' Center said she works full time through three part-time jobs that don't offer benefits. Adam said she went to work this winter while she had the flu because she didn't want to lose income – or her jobs.

"Why do we do this?” Adams asked. “Why do we not explicitly protect our most vulnerable workers? Immigrants, low-income workers, people who live paycheck who will show up to work even if they are experiencing physical or mental health emergencies just because losing a day's wages throws off their hard-earned stability."

Some businesses owners also spoke in support of the proposal, including Jessica Sheehan of the restaurant Cong Tu Bot. She said she's developing a paid sick leave policy for her 13 employees.

"As an employer, I believe I have a responsibility to support my staff who work so hard for me,” Sheehan said. “I also have a responsibility to the well-being of the public."

Several supporters highlighted the role paid sick leave plays in reducing the spread of infectious diseases. The American Medical Association formally recognized the public health benefit of paid sick leave a couple of years ago. But at the public hearing following the rally, many employers said while the intent of the proposed ordinance is laudable, it would be unaffordable for small businesses that operate on thin margins.

Michaela McVetty owns Sisters Gourmet Deli.

"This isn't people over profits or profits over people,” McVetty said. “I don't know how much you think I make off of $9 sandwiches. But I also have rent to pay. I also have student loans. I also have credit card debt. And everything that I own is riding on that business for which I'm also paying off a small business loan. Those are all costs that are real to me as a human person who also gets sick."

Many businesses said that flaws in the ordinance could be traced to the fact that it was written without input from employers.

The CEO of the Portland Regional Chamber of Commerce, Quincy Hentze said even though most of its 600 members offer paid sick leave, the Chamber opposes the draft ordinance.

"Good policy comes when all parties sit down at the table, determine if there's actually a problem that needs to be addressed, and have an honest conversation and work towards common goals," Hentze said.

The chair of Portland's Health and Human Services Committee, Belinda Ray, said the ordinance will likely change as councilors get more feedback and information. She said it will likely take months before it's ready for a vote.

The issue is on the committee's agenda again on May 8th.

This story was originally published April 25, 2018 at 4:50 p.m. ET.