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Law granting sick time goes into effect

The state law requires companies to provide most workers with paid sick leave.

The week before Christmas a few years ago, Sue Wilmot was so ill she called in sick and missed her Wednesday shift at the Safeway on Bainbridge Island even though it meant she would be short a day of pay in her next paycheck.

For Wilmot, who has been a grocery checker for 30 years, the decision to stay home from work has always been a balance between going to work while sick to earn money for her family or staying home without pay to get better.

Although Wilmot was entitled to paid sick leave as a union member, the terms of her union's collective bargaining contract stipulated she could only begin to collect sick leave pay after her third missed shift.

"A lot of people, including myself, had to choose when we were sick to either go into work or be out three days to collect sick leave, but then we're missing three days of work," Wilmot said. "It's really not good for people to handle food who are sick, but a lot of people had to make that choice to earn money."

Employees in Washington will no longer have to decide between getting paid or getting better.

A state law went into effect on Monday that requires employers to provide most employees, including seasonal and part-time employees, with paid sick leave. The law also prohibits employers and businesses from retaliating against employees for using the paid sick leave they've accrued.

Voters approved Initiative 1433 in November 2016, which made the employee benefits state law. That initiative also approved an annual state-mandated minimum wage increase that will raise the minimum wage by 50 cents this year to $11.50 an hour.

"Employees should know that paid sick leave is now a right for them," said Tiffany Loescher, a spokeswoman with the Washington Department of Labor and Industries. "Their employer should be telling them about their ongoing accrual and the processes on how to use it."

Employees will start to accrue one hour of paid sick leave time for every 40 hours worked after the first of the year. Compensation for time off due to illness must be paid at the employee's normal hourly rate of pay for time worked.

"This will be dramatic in a positive way for workers who will be able to stay home when they're sick or when a loved one is sick and not have to miss a day's pay," said Tom Geiger, spokesman for the Washington state-based labor union UFCW 21. "The reality is that people have gone to work sick not because they didn't care about the people they serve, but because they need that money and now they're not going to have to make that choice."

Under the law, there is no cap on the number of paid sick leave hours employees can accrue and up to 40 hours of that earned time can be rolled over to the next year. At the start of a new year, employees will begin accruing more paid sick time in addition to any hours they carried over from the previous year.

Employees will be eligible to begin using their accrued time off after 90 days from the start of their employment. For those who were employed by a business or company for 90 days before the law came into effect, they are able to begin using their time off as soon as they accrue it.

Employees will also be allowed to use their sick leave to care for a family member, such as a child or a spouse.

"If your kid is sick and you don't have a paid sick day, that kid usually ends up in school because you can't take the day off to take care for them because otherwise you might not be able to pay your rent," Geiger said. "This changes that calculus."

Now, parents will be able to stay home to take care of a sick child, which will potentially stop the spread of germs and colds to the other students, teachers, staff, cafeteria workers and school janitors.

"As a parent myself, I gotta believe that everyone would think that's a better situation," Geiger said.

The Department of Labor and Industries offers a variety of resources for companies to adjust to the new law, such as providing sample policies on the department's website and hosting free webinars until February that will delve into requirements for compliance.

While the law will impact employers and businesses of all sizes, smaller businesses will likely feel the "added expense" more so than larger businesses that might have already had paid time off policies, said Julie Tappero, president and CEO of Gig Harbor-based West Sound Workforce.

"It's going to hit them at the bottom line," Tappero said. "Businesses may have to raise their prices to maintain their bottom line. It's just an extra cost of doing business."

But despite whatever costs might come to business owners, Tappero said it would be a worthwhile expense in the long-run.

"You'll have a more stable workforce and people will be able to stay home when they're sick or take care of their family," Tappero said. "It helps employees to be productive. It's good for our community."