People line up to speak at Tuesday’s hearing on a proposal to require businesses in Portland to provide paid sick time to employees. Staff photo by Shawn Patrick Ouellette

Portland city councilors heard strong testimony Wednesday both in support of and in opposition to a proposal that would require businesses in the city to give all of their full-time, part-time and seasonal employees as many as six paid sick days a year.

Workers – sometimes holding multiple jobs – told stories of having to go to work sick and spreading illnesses to clients and customers.

Leighann Gillis, a direct support professional who works with developmentally disabled adults, said she has gone to work with listeria, stomach bug and a cough that when passed onto a co-worker turned into pneumonia. Simply because she couldn’t afford to take an unpaid day off.

“I believe in paid sick days. I just want to be a healthy and productive member of this community,” Gillis said. “I’m here to make it known that employees have rights that need to be acknowledged.”

But some business owners, who support the idea in concept, said profit margins are thin and each business needs to figure out what works for them. They warned of increased costs, potential abuse and loss of better benefits programs already in place. They also were concerned that they would no longer be able to have a probationary period before sick time can be used.

“One size doesn’t fit all,” said Suzanne Foley-Ferguson, owner of Beals Ice Cream on Veranda Street.

Some, including the Portland Regional Chamber of Commerce and other business owners, lamented the us-versus-them dynamic already at play. They called on the council to slow down and possibly create an advisory group or task force to look into the issue.

“This division isn’t good for any of us,” said Brit Vitalius, a small business owner and landlord representative who noted a “leadership issue” in the city. “We’re going to be beating each other over the head in three-minute sound bites.”

Supporters of a proposed ordinance mandating paid sick time for workers in Portland gather for a rally outside City Hall on Tuesday. The rally was followed by nearly three hours of testimony before the council, with impassioned commentary from proponents and opponents alike. Staff photo by Shawn Patrick Ouellette

STATEWIDE EFFORT FAILED IN LEGISLATURE

Tuesday was the first hearing about a proposal drafted by the Maine Women’s Lobby and the Southern Maine Worker’s Center to make Portland the first community in the state to adopt a mandatory earned sick time ordinance. The measure is supported by EqualityMaine, Planned Parenthood of Northern New England, and the Maine State Building and Construction Trade Council.

More than 26 other U.S. cities have similar rules. Last year, the Legislature turned down a statewide paid sick leave proposal that would have made Maine the eighth U.S. state to require paid sick leave.

Portland’s proposal would require employers to give their full-time, part-time and seasonal employees one hour of paid sick time for every 30 hours worked. Employees could earn and use up to 48 hours a year. Any unused time would roll over to the following year, but would not be paid to employees if they leave their job.

Sick time could be used for an employee’s mental or physical health, injury or diagnosis. It could also be used to cover an absence caused by domestic violence, sexual assault or stalking, as well as taking caring of a family member. Any absence lasting three or more days would require a doctor’s note.

The city would be charged with enforcement and would have to investigate complaints within 15 days. Violators would have to pay up to three times the amount of back wages owed and the city could issue a $100-a-day fine. And workers would be able to sue their employers for ordinance violations.

Eliza Townsend of the Maine Woman’s Lobby speaks during Tuesday’s hearing on a proposal to require Portland employers to offer all employees paid sick time. She called the plan “needed, reasonable and socially just.” Staff photo by Shawn Patrick Ouellette

The Maine Women’s Lobby and the Southern Maine Workers Center held a rally before the hearing that drew about 50 people. People wearing red shirts held signs saying “Healthy workers keep Portland healthy” and “Illness is universal. Paid sick days must be too,” among others.

Eliza Townsend, executive director of the Maine Women’s Lobby, said that about 19,000 Portland workers could be affected, primarily women and minorities working in retail, restaurant, home care and hospitality sectors. She said the ordinance is “needed, reasonable and socially just.”

“No one should have to choose between the time they need to get well to the paycheck they need to make ends meet,” Townsend said.

Patrick Roche, who owns the Think Tank CoWorking space on Congress Street, told the rally crowd the ordinance would not be “remotely onerous” and if it threatens the viability of a business then “you’re not running a good business.” Roche also suggested that Portland residents should not support any business opposed to the ordinance.

“Portlanders know how to vote with their dollars,” Roche said. “I think there’s certainly a way for us to combat those companies that don’t support their employees in a proper way.”

‘A PUBLIC HEALTH NECESSITY’

City Councilor Belinda Ray, who leads the council’s Health and Human Services and Public Safety Committee, said she expects the committee will spend a considerable amount of time looking at the proposal before making any changes or recommendations. The committee will receive answers to previously posed questions on May 8.

During a nearly three-hour public hearing, councilors heard voluminous testimony from both sides of the issue, including businesses that favored the new requirement.

Phillipa Adam said she works three jobs, including as a server and as a child care worker. None of the jobs offers paid sick time, so she has to work while sick, including working through two bouts of the flu.

“I was afraid of losing my shifts, my jobs, the respect of my supervisors and my income,” Adam said. “I downplayed my illness to my co-workers and clients to put them at ease working with me, so that I would not be sent home.”

Mary Beth Gagne, of the Maine State Nurses Association, said mandatory paid sick days is a “public health necessity.”

“Sick workers are a major public health issue,” Gagne said.

Several businesses – both large and small – voiced concern about the ordinance.

Quincy Hentzel, CEO of the Portland Regional Chamber of Commerce, said the ordinance was written without business input and has unnecessarily pitted workers against employers. She said the “vast majority” of the 600 businesses offer sick time, but the others are afraid to share their concerns because of potential backlash.

“The Portland Chamber strongly opposes this proposal before you this evening,” Hentzel said. “And we do so for all of the businesses too fearful to speak for themselves.”

Some businesses, Maine Medical Center, Mercy Hospital and WEX, would no longer be able to provide general paid time off, which is popular with employees, because of the ordinance.

“This is a takeaway for our employees,” said Judy West, senior vice president, human resources and chief human resources officer at MaineMed. “There is no tweak or change that would make this worth pursuing in our city.”

BUSINESSES CALL THE COST ONEROUS

While others, like Foley-Ferguson, owner of Beals Ice Cream, said the ordinance – along with increases in the minimum wage – could be enough to put them out of business. She said she only makes between $30,000 to $60,000 a year. She’s worried that sick leave will be abused by her employees, whose ages range from 14 to 17 years old.

“When they take time off, they come in the next day they come in sunburned, because they went to the beach,” she said. “I looked at Instagram. They’re at a concert that night. I have had one or more kid call in because they have a hangover.”

Paula Mahoney, who owns a marketing firm, said that she already offers a generous compensation package, including giving employees five sick days after they have been with the company for 90 days. But her plan would not comply with the ordinance, because it’s one day too few and the time doesn’t roll over.

Mahoney estimated that the ordinance would cost her $48,000 a year in lost revenue, wages paid and additional bookkeeping expenses. “This ordinance effectively makes me a break-even business.”

Randy Billings can be contacted at 791-6346 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: randybillings

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