San Juan employers learn how to apply new paid sick leave law

Correction: This story originally said that full-time employees can accrue a maximum of 52 hours of paid sick leave if they work every day over an entire year. However there is no maximum amount they can accrue.

San Juan County employees are guaranteed sick leave, starting this year, thanks to a new state law.

The legislation is part of state Initiative 1433, which voters approved in November 2016. Staff from the island’s chamber of commerce held a meeting on Jan. 8 where a representative from the state department of labor and industries explained the changes to about 70 local employees.

“Most small businesses don’t offer benefits,” said Becki Day, executive director of the San Juan Island Chamber of Commerce. “Now that this law was voted into effect, we have to comply.”

As of Jan. 1, employees accrue one hour of paid sick leave for every 40 hours worked, including overtime. This pertains to full-time, part-time and seasonal workers.

Full-time employees can accrue 52 hours of paid sick leave if they work 40 hours, every day over an entire year. Only up to 40 of those hours can roll over to the next year, even for seasonal employees who return within a year.

To allow workers to use hours immediately, staff at Island Excavating on Orcas Island opted to give 40 hours of paid sick leave up front.

Previously the company’s employees often used paid vacation time to stay home sick, said Island Excavating President Paul Vierthaler. Offering paid sick leave for the first time may turn out to be beneficial, he said.

“Financially, it’s a burden to give 40 hours of paid sick leave up front, but we look at long-term goals,” said Vierthaler. “If less employees get sick over a year, then that’s a positive.”

Vierthaler said his up to 20, full-time, hourly employees are also now mandated to stay home when sick. This is not required under the law, but Vierthaler said the new company policy allows for the most gain under the new legislation: healthy employees aren’t overworked to make up for the lack of staff, and the spread of illnesses is prevented.

“Most [workers] come in too soon because they need the money,” he said about those who don’t fully recover before returning to work. “Then it’s a big cycle where everyone gets sick.”

According to the law, compensation must be equivalent to employees’ normal hourly wage, based on the rate employees would have received if they had worked on their sick day. That requires employers to track compensation, even during fluctuating shifts. Compensation does not include potential tips.

Employers are also responsible for covering workers when they call off work due to illness, whether they use their paid sick leave or not. That’s a new concept in the restaurant businesses, said Mike Sharadin, the owner of Mike’s Wine Bar and Cafe in Friday Harbor. He’s happy to see ill employees compensated, he said, but would rather give a 5 percent raise than comply with the law’s changes.

“If they’re long-term employees, we’ve built up a degree of confidence, but if they’re short-term employees, there really isn’t a lot of confidence that they are here for the long term and truly sick,” said Sharadin.

Sharadin described instances where workers called in sick but he later found they had “gone out drinking.” The new law doesn’t place enough “ownership” on the employee, he said, which will change the way he does business.

In the summer, said Sharadin, he usually hires extra staff around Memorial Day to cover the tourist season. However, by the end of the summer, new employees’ sick leave days will kick in and Sharadin suspects some might opt for the paid days off at the close of their temporary jobs.

Accumulating paid sick leave starts immediately for existing employees and 90 days after new workers’ start dates. Sharadin said he may offer the paid sick leave compensation as bonuses for those who don’t cash them in.

The paid time off doesn’t just cover employees if they are sick, injured or visiting the doctor. It also covers them if their close family members need care. Close relatives include children, siblings, parents, grandparents and spouses.

It also includes absences that fall under the state’s Domestic Violence Leave Act and if their workplace or child’s school or care facility is closed by the state for health issues.

Micheal Cherveny, owner of Village Cycles on Lopez Island, doesn’t view the changes as a burden. He has never offered paid sick leave for his business’s two summer employees, but said he’s happy to do so now.

“Employees work really hard and deserve paid sick leave so when they get sick they can take care of themselves,” said Cherveny. “That’s totally fair.”

Initiative 1433 also gradually increases the minimum wage. An $11.50 minimum wage, for ages 16 and above, is already in effect for 2018. This hourly minimum is in addition to tips and service charges that employees may receive. The minimum wage is scheduled to reach $13.50 in 2020 and will then be tied to the rate of inflation.

Businesses are required to have written policies regarding the new law. The Washington State Department of Labor and Industries has samples at Click on “Paid sick leave,” then “employers,” to find a list of examples in Word documents, which can be edited for specific businesses. For more information, call 1-866-219-7321.