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WA Lawmakers Debate Paid Sick Time, Family Leave



February 5, 2013

OLYMPIA, Wash. - In Olympia today, Washington state lawmakers are debating ways to shore up the safety net for workers who get sick or have to take extended time off for new children or family emergencies. At a House Labor Committee hearing this morning, they'll focus on two bills. One is based on a Seattle city ordinance that allows workers to earn five to nine days of paid sick time.

As an hourly worker in Sea-Tac, Jeanette Randall said it would be an improvement over her employer's current policy of paying for sick time only after the first three days of an illness.

"If I just don't feel well but I'm upright and able to function, I go to work sick, and many of my coworkers do as well," she admitted. "We're grocery store workers; I'm a checker - I touch everybody's food. That's kind of the situation that we're faced with is: miss out on pay or stay home and get better."

Some businesses say they can't afford to offer workers paid time off, because they also have to pay their replacements and could be forced to raise prices as a result. But some Seattle business owners have said the city ordinance hasn't had much effect on their bottom line and has been good for workers' morale.

Rep. Tami Green (D-Dist. 28) of Lakewood is a co-sponsor of the Paid Sick Days bill and the chief House sponsor of another bill that covers time off for longer absences. Family and Medical Leave Insurance would cost workers a few dollars a month, and give them a partial paycheck if they need the leave.

Rep. Green, a nurse, pointed out that emergencies aren't planned and most families don't budget for them.

"This would give people a basic, very low amount of their pay just to help them get by, because having time off is one thing, but being able to afford it is another thing, particularly for middle-class families," said Green. "This is sort of like a safety-net piece for them."

The Legislature passed a Family and Medical Leave Insurance plan in 2007 but didn't find a way to fund it. The new bill outlines a payroll deduction that Green said would pay the state back its start-up funding within two years.

Makini Howell, who owns several Seattle restaurants, said she thinks both pieces of legislation represent more than just giving workers time off when they need it.

"I've run the numbers for my own business, and the cost is minimal compared to employee retention, healthy workers, a healthy business, you know, actually being a strong part of the community," Howell said.

Bills are HB 1457 and SB 5292 (Family & Medical Leave Insurance) and HB 1313 (Paid Sick Days). The hearing is at 10 a.m. in House Labor & Workforce Development Committee.

Chris Thomas, Public News Service - WA