Paid sick days initiative detractors & supporters share why they're on opposite side of issue

As seen in Contagion, the movie whose trailer features Gwyneth Paltrow dying, mass sickness -- and the mass hysteria that can come with it -- are relegated mostly to the fictional world. The two made an appearance today, however, at two separate meetings to discuss the 2011 Denver Paid Sick Days Initiative, also known as initiative 300, across the span of about two hours. The CliffsNotes version: It turns out the two sides are pretty sick of each other, though neither opposes the initiative's goal.

The ordinance, which would guarantee Denver workers up to nine days (or 72 hours) of paid sick leave, is fronted by two highly specific niche interest parties that today shone little light on the gray area in between. (Even Westword employees would be affected if the bill is passed -- along with approximately everyone else.)

The line in the sand here is less metaphorical than almost-visible: Both fronted by organizations, the issue's two camps met only about two and a half miles from each other with widely varying attendance and media presence.

Organized under No to 300, a campaign launched in opposition of the initiative's broad construction, restaurant officials gathered at Wynkoop at 10 a.m. for a meeting of Eat Denver targeted toward uniting publicly against Initiative 300's wording. Although similar legislation was adopted in Seattle on Monday, Denver's version includes language that would allow employees to give no notice and no excuse for their leave for three days while facing no discipline for ninety days. A comparison between the two bills, both created to serve the same purpose, shows a heavier focus on the rights of the individual over the employer in the Denver version.

Although the ordinance would affect all segments of Denver's employment structure, its most devout opponents are independent restaurateurs, who say their businesses would suffer considerably from an initiative through which the strongest affects apply to businesses with more than ten employees. (In Seattle, the maximum effects apply to businesses with more than 250.)

Eleven members of the issue's second aggressive niche -- public health -- gathered across from St. Luke's Medical Center in support of the issue; they wore gas masks to prove their point in front of a camera crew from CBS4. While the employers at the Eat Denver meeting focused on the limits of the initiative's detailed provisons, the smaller, more symbolic group of health care workers met to share personal anecdotes in support of their stance that opposition to the bill means a hike in illness.

Their argument, occasionally drowned out by the traffic on High Street, is that without paid leave, sick employees will spread their infections in the workplace. It's an argument that includes the slogan "No flu in my fries" as well as frequent references to "power of magnitude." In public health care, the results could spread rather quickly.

"I think the pro-business side is intent on victimizing employees to continue making a buck," home health care nurse Patricia Hughes says. Hughes was fired from her previous agency last month when a bout of food poisoning led to aspiration pneumonia, as well as a sick day she didn't have paid leave to take. "It's short-sighted to look so closely at the bottom line."

The public health proponents are supported in large part by 9to5, the National Association of Working Women, in their attention to the individual worker and the global (or at least hospital-wide) picture. Myra Crenshaw joined the group because of illnesses her elderly father contracted in the care of health programs, which she attributes to workers she noticed were visibly sick.

"My dad's a pretty tough guy, a World War II veteran with a Bronze Star, but he's not vulnerable to illnesses going around," says Crenshaw, who supported her argument at a national seminar on paid sick days in Washington, D.C. in July. "He got sick from people who were supposed to take care of him, and nine sick days are a lot cheaper than everyone getting sick at once because they're all at work."

One of the fundamental differences between the two groups, aside from an attention divided between the individual and the company, is the degree to which they interpret the initiative's almost sixteen pages of stipulations.

While its opponents worry about the degree to which individual workers might legally be able to take advantage of their employers through loose regulations, 300's supporters are less concerned with the details: "I don't think employees would abuse that," Crenshaw says. "Why wouldn't we trust them?"

More from our Politics archive: "Denver Paid Sick Days Initiative to submit triple number of signatures needed to make ballot."

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Kelsey Whipple
Contact: Kelsey Whipple