SALEM – Ten Democratic lawmakers and their allies expressed frustration Tuesday at the Legislature's failure to pass a statewide paid sick-leave bill.
When the session began in February with large Democratic majorities in both the Senate and House, advocates expected Oregon to quickly become the fourth state with a law mandating paid leave for workers.
But with Memorial Day signaling the final weeks of the session, two paid sick-leave bills continue to languish in committee despite months of pre-session work to craft a law acceptable to business, labor and members of both political parties.
Tuesday, four senators and six state representatives joined the advocacy group Fair Shot for All at a press conference calling for legislative action on Senate Bill 454 and a companion bill, House Bill 2005.
"We've been working on a bill all session," said Sen. Michael Dembrow, D-Portland, who chairs the Senate Workforce Committee and has led efforts in that chamber to find a workable compromise on SB454.
The original proposals, modeled after ordinances passed in Portland and Eugene, would have required employers to give workers up to seven days a year. They were later reduced to five days, as in Portland and Eugene, and applied to businesses with six or more employees only. A provision was added to give the state pre-emption authority to override local ordinances, a concession to business groups that asked for consistency.
"What we have now," said Dembrow, "is a bill that works and a bill that needs to be passed."
Yet the proposal has yet to make it to the Senate floor despite an 18-12 super-majority that would allow Democrats to pass it without any Republican votes.
"It is a little frustrating that we're at this point in the session and we haven't been able to get there," said Rep. Paul Holvey, D-Eugene, who chairs the House Business and Labor Committee. "But I'm confident we're going to get there."
Holvey noted that his and Dembrow's committee heard more than 300 people testify during a joint hearing in February. Since then, paid sick days legislation has stalled partly over the pre-emption issue but also because it has become part of a larger debate about the state's minimum wage.
Several lawmakers want to see a hike in Oregon's minimum wage, and there's ongoing discussion about whether to keep the issues separate or combine them, Holvey said.
If the two are joined together, Dembrow vowed that SB454 "will be part of that larger policy." But he added that there's no agreement on the dollar amount of a heftier minimum wage, and a citizens group has filed paperwork to gather signatures for a 2016 ballot measure to raise the minimum wage to $15 by 2019.
Asked which is the higher priority, Dembrow responded, "I would say sick leave – and I say that because there's been so much work that's gone into it. This is a program that's ready to go."
Several lawmakers at the press conference said they campaigned on a promise to constituents that they would get a paid sick-days bill passed.
"I heard over and over that workers need to be able to take sick time off," said Sen. Sara Gelser, D-Corvallis. More than two-thirds of low-wage workers don't get days off with pay and must choose between going to work sick or losing a day's wages, she said.
Melody Gramley, a Salem grocery store employee and UFCW Local 555 executive board member, said she is among workers who don't get paid if they have to stay home sick.
"It shouldn't be a luxury to take a day off to recover from the flu or take care of our children," Gramley said.
Peter Emerson, owner of the Bipartisan Café in Southeast Portland, said he was originally skeptical of Portland's sick leave law but now sees the benefits of a healthier work environment for both employees and customers.
"I've been living with sick pay for a year," he said. "The doors are still open, payroll is being met and business is still good."
Senate President Peter Courtney, D-Salem, was in meetings Tuesday and not available for comment, his office said.