WisBusiness: Jobs impact from Milwaukee sick leave ordinance still up for debate

By David Wise


A proponent of Milwaukee’s pending paid sick leave ordinance downplayed its potential impact on local businesses, while an opponent said it would reduce jobs and other benefits during a panel discussion before the Milwaukee Press Club.

The ordinance, scheduled to take effect in February, will require employers with more than 10 workers to provide up to nine days of paid sick leave per year to employees. For smaller businesses, the requirement is up to five days per year.

Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce President Tim Sheehy, whose group has filed a legal challenge to the ordinance, said Wednesday the requirement would result in the creation of fewer jobs in Milwaukee, prevent some businesses from locating or expanding in the city and result in reductions of other worker benefits to fund the mandate. Sheehy said the mandate would essentially draw a circle around the city when it came to business location decisions and described it as a jobs killer.

“This is a nine-day blunt hammer that is going to clobber jobs in Milwaukee,” Sheehy said

Amy Stear, Wisconsin director of 9to5, the group that led the signature drive to get the binding referendum on the ballot, dismissed those concerns. She noted that San Francisco has added jobs since the requirement passed there. She pointed to a panel discussion some 20 years ago in which she said Sheehy and others made similar arguments about Wisconsin passing the family and medical leave act ahead of the federal government doing so.

“None of the things you said then came true, and we don’t believe they’re going to come true now,” Stear said.

Sheehy said the issue is a legal one at this stage and that the ordinance is in violation of the state’s minimum wage law. The ordinance also requires businesses outside of the city to pay sick leave for its employees who work inside the city. Sheehy said it is unclear whether the city has the power to force those businesses to do so.

Stear said she is confident the ordinance will survive the group’s legal challenge and that the requirement should be considered a benefit and not a wage under state law.

Heinemann’s restaurant cited the sick leave ordinance and the declining economy in announcing it is closing its three remaining locations after 86 years in business. Stear noted that two of its locations are outside the city and there were likely other factors responsible.

Stear said a similar pattern was seen in San Francisco when its ordinance passed, in which she said businesses already on the verge of collapse for other reasons blamed the ordinance.

Stear minimized the possibility of abuse of the benefit. Stear said that nationally, people who have sick days use on average between 1 and 3.9 sick days per year.

Sheehy responded by asking that if those figures are accurate, why nine sick days were necessary.

Stear also discussed the issue as one of public health, saying it would keep people from coming to work sick and spreading illness.

Sheehy said there is no rampant public health problem related to sick days and questioned whether workers who make most of their income on tips or commission would stay home and risk losing that money.