Cook County sick-leave bill sparks suburban controversy
A proposed Cook County law that would allow even part-time workers to earn up to five paid sick days a year is raising the concern of some Northwest suburban business organizations.
Those groups say the law's administrative costs and obligations may cause businesses that strongly rely on such labor to move to neighboring counties.
But Cook County Board Commissioners Bridget Gainer and Jesus "Chuy" Garcia, who are co-sponsoring the legislation, say it protects the well-being of both workers and the customers who interact with them at jobs where there's otherwise too much incentive to go to work sick.
"More and more people are saying, 'I can't live like this,'" Gainer said. "Losing one day of pay is just something they can't afford, even if it occurs only two or three times a year. Some people feel there's no margin for error."
Both Gainer and Garcia represent Chicago districts of the Cook County Board and said their proposal mirrors a recently approved city law. In fact, if the county bill is approved at the scheduled meeting on Oct. 5, it would take effect on the same day as the Chicago law -- July 1.
But fellow Commissioner Tim Schneider, whose district includes a large portion of the Northwest suburbs, said he's heard the concerns of constituent business leaders and intends to represent them with a "no" vote on the bill.
"I frankly feel it's misguided," Schneider said. "I haven't heard anyone in favor of it yet. I don't think it can be tweaked enough to my satisfaction."
Though he said Gainer makes a good argument about pressure on part-time workers to come to work sick, he believes there'll be fewer places for such people to find work if the law affects all of Cook County.
Schaumburg Village Manager Brian Townsend said his village has done enough research to know home-rule communities such as his would have the authority to opt out, but there remains a concern among business owners about creating an uneven playing field.
Schaumburg Business Association President Kaili Harding said the concerns she's heard from her members center more on the administrative tasks of tracking employees' hours to determine the amount of sick pay earned, rather than the cost of paying for such time off.
She added that among the businesses most affected by the proposed law are smaller, non-chain restaurants.
"These small businesses are already looking after their employees in the right way, but don't want to get caught up in the red tape," Harding said.
She said tracking one hour of sick time for every 40 hours of work could force some businesses to hire a human resources manager they wouldn't otherwise need.
Such a regulation will affect businesses of different sizes in different ways, Harding said, but she's heard estimates of its cost impact ranging from $600 to $6,000.
Garcia and Gainer said they consider the fact that sick time must be earned one of the law's strengths; workers won't have five days to use from their moment of hire.
But they acknowledge the administrative concerns are valid and must be worked out. They're confident, however, that such issues can be settled during the three weeks' delay from the bill's originally scheduled vote this Wednesday.
Schneider said his office has been researching whether all municipalities in the county might have the power to opt out of the regulation.
Barrington Village Manager Jeff Lawler said he's skeptical that non-home-rule communities like his would have the authority to do so.
Barrington is a community particularly vulnerable to the uneven playing field that could be created, Lawler said. Main Street divides not only the village and its downtown business district, but also Cook and Lake counties. The businesses on one side of the street would have significantly different costs than those on the other, he said.
It seems the Cook County commissioners representing Chicago can easily outvote those representing the suburbs, so the only answer to a problem like Barrington's might be a new state law to level the playing field, Lawler said.
That was what solved an earlier disparity caused by Cook County's smoking ban.
But he said he doesn't believe greater business regulation is one of the top priorities in Springfield these days, making it unlikely the inequality would be addressed.
Gainer said she, too, would prefer to see the state pass a similar law but doubts it would happen anytime soon.