Interview with Tacoma City Councilperson Ryan Mello on paid sick days
MomsRising: Tacoma Mayor Marilyn Strickland has said she supports passing a paid sick leave bill this year. You’ve been leading on this issue for some time. What do you think about the details the Mayor has shared?
Ryan Mello: I’m glad Mayor Strickland understands that cities need to take the lead on issues like paid sick leave, but the policy details she is rumored to have shared with the Washington Retail Association won’t actually protect workers, families, or public health. The Tacoma City Council can’t just pass a showpiece to get this issue off our desks. We need a policy that helps all the people of Tacoma in a meaningful way.
MomsRising: Why have you made passing paid sick days a priority?
Ryan Mello: I waited tables right out of college to make ends meet. We didn’t have any sick leave, and I saw my coworkers coming to work sick all the time. Many of the people I worked with had kids at home, families depending on them – they had no choice but to come to work sick.
We should have policies in place so folks don’t have to make these untenable decisions about going to work sick in order to make rent, or being able to stay home to take care of themselves or their loved ones.
This is a public health issue as well. We should not be exposing the most vulnerable in health clinics or hospitals to sick workers. The people who handle our food in grocery stores or at the neighborhood sandwich shop should not be at work if they’re sick. They should be able to stay home and not lose a day’s wages.
MomsRising: How do you see paid sick days being particularly important to moms?
Ryan Mello: Well, we’ve come a long way in making it so moms aren’t the only ones taking care of kids or older folks, but it’s still a fact that a lot of the time and energy spent caring for family members still rests on women. We need to give tools to moms so they can have careers and be bread-winners, and also take care of their kids.
They need access to paid sick leave so that when the school nurse calls, they can go get their child and bring them home, instead of that kid sitting there at school. And giving dads paid sick days makes it easier for them to take on those kinds of roles as well, and that’s good for families, I think.
MomsRising: So what is necessary in a paid sick leave policy to make sure working people have the tools to protect the health of themselves, their families, and the public?
Ryan Mello: Here’s what I’ve learned as I’ve talked with many workers over the past couple of years.
First, the number of paid days off people earn is important. We know the flu stays contagious for a week or more. Kids in daycare and school get sick a lot. People need access to enough time off that they aren’t forced to make those tough choices between health and family finances. The 3 days Mayor Strickland mentioned is simply not enough for the moms I’ve talked to. And we know from real life experience that in cities that have set 5, 7, or 9 days as the norm, businesses of all kinds and sizes are continuing to do just fine.
Secondly, I think it must apply to all workers. The Retail Association claims the Mayor is considering excluding union members and restaurant workers, but that’s just not acceptable. That would mean the nurses in hospitals and the clerks handling our food at grocery stores, who work for major corporations, would continue being pressured to come into work sick. To be honest, it dumbfounds me.
A third thing is that safe leave – for domestic violence or stalking situations, for example – needs to be included. Working your way through the court system can take a lot of time. And people should not have to lose wages because they’re fleeing from an abuser, or advocating for themselves in court.
MomsRising: What about the perspective of business owners?
Ryan Mello: I’ve talked to many business owners and folks from business associations. Many of them take real pride in offering earned paid sick days because they feel like it’s an important recruitment and retention tool. It’s one of the key ways that they signal to their employees that they care about them and their families. They want their employees to stay with them, because they know how expensive it is when employees turnover.
I also hear from most employers that of course people should have access to earned sick days; they don’t want sick people coming to work. They understand that the flu and many other diseases are contagious.
I think business owners want a policy that is straightforward and easy-to-understand. Most agree there needs to be some kind of enforcement mechanism so everyone is playing by the same rules, but that the focus shouldn’t be on punishing employers, but needs to stay on helping employers comply so that workers can stay home when they’re sick without losing pay.
In the end, that’s good for workers, customers, and the business, too.
Ryan Mello can be reached at Ryan.Mello@CityofTacoma.org or @RyanMelloTacoma.