New Sick Day Law Takes Effect in San Francisco

When Leonardo Prado's 4-year-old son was sick, he had to pay a baby sitter $10 an hour to take care of him while Prado went to work and made only $8.88 an hour.

A new law in San Francisco says Prado will never face that cost again.

The law, the first in the country, supplies paid sick leave to all San Francisco employees.

Approved by 61 percent of San Francisco voters in November, the law requires one hour of paid sick time for every 30 hours worked. That could add up to approximately nine sick days a year for full-time employees.

Sick leave is granted if the employee, a family member, domestic partner or unrelated person is ill. The law requires employees to register unrelated persons each year.

It's a huge relief to many employees who have to pay for child care if they can't stay home with a sick child.

"At least I know … that my son, because I'm a single father, if he is sick, there's a law that will protect us," Prado said.

How Will It Affect Small Businesses?

Employers are concerned about the cost, though. They'll have to spend more money on payroll when an employee calls in sick.

"It requires double pay for me because I have to pay for the sick person and another body," said Cathie Guntli, owner of the Liberty Cafe, which employs 28 people.

"It would be one thing if they were sick, but this really gives them carte blanche to say, 'I'm not sick but my roommate is,'" Guntli said.

Employee support groups say the cost won't hurt employers as much as they think.

"Most businesses will raise the costs of their goods and services, and I know customers won't mind knowing that the people serving them won't get them sick," said Naomi Nakamura, a volunteer with Young Workers United in San Francisco.

The legislation will prevent the 116,000 workers in San Francisco from spreading illnesses at work. They are food servers, child day-care workers and retail employees.

"You don't want to have people showing up to work sick and passing that on to their customer," Nakamura said.

Some workers admit that their work suffers when they have to work sick. Sometimes they have to spend their break time resting.

"When I was sick, I wasn't really doing the best job, but I still had to work because my family needed," said Dante Grant, a former part-time employee at a children's restaurant.

"When sick people handle food, they are not thinking about getting other people sick. It's nothing personal; they just need to work," Grant said.

A City of Innovations

The paid sick leave is the second San Francisco law that critics say could hurt small businesses. In 2003, San Francisco voters established a local minimum wage requirement.

"Employees are already making $9.15 an hour. For them to be able to also have me pay them sick leave means my payroll expense will go up," Guntli said.

It's a hardship that makes Guntli question doing business in San Francisco.

"It makes me just think about getting out of business in this town," Guntli said.

An employee's fear of losing pay makes the law critical in San Francisco.

"I was working part time and I actually got strep throat from a worker who couldn't afford to take sick leave," Nakamura said.

With paid sick leave now a reality, Guntli hopes it won't hurt profits too much. She's relying on her employees not to treat the sick leave as vacation time.

"I've got a great crew, and I hope they won't take advantage," she said.

"There are many companies that already offer sick days. Do those employees abuse the law? I don't think so," Prado said.

George Lopez, manager of the Soup Freak, sees some good in the law.

"I think in the long run it will actually help out because people will be happier," Lopez said.

The law is now drawing national attention. Similar bills have been introduced in New Jersey and Washington state.

"San Francisco helped lead the way, and I think the efforts are picking up steam across the country," said Debra Ness, president of the National Partnership for Women and Families.

Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., hopes to propose the bill on a federal level at a committee hearing next week.

"This is a really a matter of basic human decency. What employer should tell their employee to come to work sick?" Ness said.

Kennedy raised the issue in Congress before, but was unsuccessful; Ness thinks it will play out differently this time.

"We have a very different Congress now. I think the prospects of it seeing some action are much greater. … I don't think San Francisco will be alone long," she said.