D.C. mandates sick leave, exempts waiters and new hires

D.C.'s new sick-leave law could become a model for efforts elsewhere to require businesses to pay for sick leave.

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(FORTUNE Small Business) -- Details of Washington, D.C's. new law requiring all city businesses to provide paid sick leave to their employees were finally released this week, clarifying the last-minute amendments to the legislation that will exempt recent hires and certain classes of workers, as well as allowing hardship exceptions for employers.

The law makes D.C. the second municipality to require businesses to pay for sick leave, a policy under consideration in a number of other cities and states .

The Accrued Sick and Safe Leave Act was originally approved by the council in an 11-2 vote on February 6, but city rules required a second vote four weeks later before the measure could become law. That vote was held on March 4, following a marathon session in which the council debated a flurry of amendments proposed by councilmembers Jack Evans and David Catania.

When the dust cleared, the law that was unanimously approved by the council differed significantly from the one initially passed last month.

The basics are the same: All businesses within the District must provide their employees with paid leave time, which can be used in cases of illness or injury from domestic abuse, or to care for a sick family member. Businesses with 100 or more workers must provide seven days of leave, those with 25 to 99 must provide five days, and those with 24 or fewer, three days. Part-time workers get pro-rated time.

The final legislation, however, exempts workers who have been at their jobs for less than a year, or who have worked less than 1,000 hours total for their current employer. It also does not require businesses to provide paid leave to restaurant waitstaff and bartenders who earn part of their pay in tips, or for health care workers who are working second jobs but are not eligible for overtime pay.

Estimates of how many workers total will be exempted by the new amendments run as high as one-third of the D.C. workforce. According to an analysis of 2006 census figures by the Center for Economic and Policy Research, 32.9% of D.C. workers earning in the bottom third of the wage range and 23.4% of those in the top two-thirds have been at their current jobs for less than 12 months.

Another amendment requires the mayor's office to come up with rules for exempting all "businesses that can prove hardship" as a result of the new sick-leave requirements. A spokeswoman for Mayor Adrian Fenty says the mayor is still awaiting instructions from the council on when and how these rules are to be formulated.

Several of the new measures were passed at the behest of the D.C. Chamber of Commerce, which, citing the bill's "potentially devastating impact on small businesses," had previously sent the council a list of 14 desired amendments to the bill, ranging from hardship exemptions to a sunset provision that would expire the law in two years if it was not renewed (which was not approved).

Chamber president Barbara Lang said in a statement following last week's vote that her organization was "extremely pleased with the end result," adding, "'Sick & Safe,' in its original form, threatened to heap untold hardship on businesses in the District. But now, thanks to these amendments, our region's economic outlook appears that much better."

Once D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty signs the bill, as expected, Congress has 30 legislative days to review it before it becomes law. At that point, a six-month waiting period will begin, meaning the new rules will most likely take effect late this year. To top of page

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