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In Portland, Construction Unions Worry Paid Sick Days Legislation Could Interfere with Collective Bargaining

With talk of #PaidSickDays legislation roiling New York, Pennsylvania and Florida (to name a few…), construction workers in the Northwest are telling a cautionary tale you might not expect to hear from union workers.

Portland, Oregon has a stricter Paid Sick Days law than the one about to hit NYC. It mandates that any employer with more than six employees grant sick leave at a rate of one hour for every 30 hours worked. Workers may use up to 40 hours of sick leave each year. Typically, laws like these are meant to protect low-wage earners from employer exploitation. They are safety measures. These types of bills, though, are becoming unpopular among construction unionists who see their collective bargaining rights as being infringed upon.

Portland’s rules regarding Paid Sick Days go further than other big cities like San Francisco and Los Angeles which allow Paid Sick Days to be opted out of in collective bargaining. This allows for greater flexibility during the negotiating process. As NWLaborPress notes, Portland effectively disallows the forfeiture of paid sick leave as a concession during contract negotiations.

The original draft of the city’s law made an exception for companies who hired from local union halls, as long as they had their own Paid Sick Days policy equal to or better than the new city standards. This was axed in the final draft with commissioners explaining they wanted a “clean ordinance.” While no Building Trades unions have come out publicly against the law, many leaders are beginning to question how it effects the sovereignty of their collective bargaining rights. Kevin Jensen, business manager of Ironworkers Local 29, told NWLaborPress,

It’s almost like the City is negotiating for us.

Russ Garnett, business manager at Roofers Local 49, noted that union roofers in the region make $28.03 an hour with $9.65 in benefits. He argued nobly that union wages are high enough that a worker can afford to eat a day’s wages if they are too sick to make it to the job site.

While the Oregon AFL-CIO is backing Portland’s current Paid Sick Days bill, John Mohlis, Executive Secretary-Treasurer of the Oregon State Building and Construction Trades Council, said his organization hopes to have an amendment added to the bill that addresses the problems the construction sector faces:

“Sick pay and vacation just don’t work in the construction industry,” Mohlis said. “It’s too transient of an industry.”

“We have [wage] rates negotiated that are higher than they would be than if you just worked for one employer all the time. That higher wage makes up for the fact that we don’t have sick pay and we don’t have vacation pay.”

Paid Sick Days legislation has made great strides in major cities, something this website applauds and has written about multiple times. But anybody deeply interested or invested in collective bargaining rights can understand the challenges being brought to light in Oregon. There is an important balance that must be struck for Paid Sick Days to spread vibrantly across the country without upending other necessary bargaining protections.


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