City council members in Eugene are considering a local paid sick leave ordinance, which would make the city just the seventh in the nation to impose the mandate on businesses, joining such major cities as San Francisco, Washington, D.C., Seattle and Portland.

The idea upset Eugene business owner Patty McConnell so much that last month she fired off a critical email to Mayor Kitty Piercy.

McConnell, owner of a Eugene auto body shop, told Piercy that she was angry over the City Council's interest in the idea, without first consulting business owners.

"It isn't that I'm not sympathetic to the need for sick leave. It's that they didn't talk to us first to see how it would impact us and our bottom lines," McConnell said. "To have them railroad this over us is very disappointing."

Councilors Claire Syrett and Alan Zelenka brought the idea of mandatory sick leave to the council in February on behalf of a coalition of advocacy groups.

Many Eugene residents work for companies that provide paid sick leave, so depending on its details, a local ordinance requiring the benefit might not affect them.

But ordinance advocates say many employees -- especially low-wage workers in the retail, food service and caregiving industries -- aren't provided paid sick leave, so the mandate would help them.

"There are literally thousands of workers in our community who have zero protection and do not earn even one hour of sick pay while they work," said Laurie Trieger, campaign manager for Everybody Benefits Eugene, a coalition of groups favoring an ordinance.

"Making sure all Eugeneans have access to paid sick time when they are sick or have a sick child will protect our public health and the well-being of our whole community."

The rhetoric around sick leave will continue in the months ahead as the City Council crafts a potentially far-reaching ordinance.

Some business people are appalled the council is even willing to consider such an ordinance, let alone implement it.

"The human resource policy such as sick leave should be the responsibility and decision of individual business owners," Ralph Parshall, general manager of Mercedes-Benz of Eugene, told the City Council on Monday.

"A mandatory ordinance strips the rights of business owners to administer their business in a fair way."

Forced to provide sick leave, some business owners said they might have to reduce other expenses, such as employee hours or paid vacation days.

Sick leave advocates say concerns about the requirement being an economic hardship on businesses are unfounded.

They say Seattle and San Francisco have had the requirement in place for two and six years, respectively, without negative effects on a majority of businesses.

Trieger, of the Everybody Benefits Eugene campaign, said workers in San Francisco use an average of three sick leave days a year, and the extra cost to employers is less than 1 percent of payroll. Sick leave advocates say that without the benefit, workers must decide whether to stay home and take care of themselves or their sick children. If they stay home, they lose pay.

If workers try to tough out an illness and go to work, they are less productive and also likely to spread illness, she said.

A 26-year-old Eugene food service worker who does not receive paid sick leave said she and her co-workers regularly come to work when they are ill and contagious.

"I did not want to lose pay," said the worker, who requested anonymity because she didn't want to upset her boss. "I've been really trying to save money, and that is hard to do on minimum wage pay.

One Eugene business is not waiting for the City Council to act.

Falling Sky Brewing owners Rob Cohen and Jason Carriere just started offering paid sick leave to workers who have been employed at their business for a year or more.

"For us, our employees are basically everything. They are like family," Cohen said. "Treating them well and allowing them not to be worried about being sick seems to be a very basic and good benefit."

"Plus, we don't want employees to be sick and come to work," Cohen said. "It's not healthy, and sick employees aren't productive."

Cohen estimated paid sick leave will cost his business $8,000 to $10,000 a year.

Follow Ed on Twitter @edwardrusso . Email ed.russo@registerguard.com .

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