Seven ways to exploit Denver's proposed paid sick leave ordinance -- and your employer

It wasn't until I found a guide to the definition of "stalking" in Initiative 300, Denver's Paid Sick and Safe Time proposal (Section 18-9-11, page 7) that my interest in the actual wording of the proposal developed into a plan to just plain exploit it.

As the newest staffer at Westword, it's important for me to understand early on exactly how much I can wring from the company that so gently and recently took me in.

And though I might raise suspicions by taking paid leave this early, there would be nothing the people who edit this blog could do about it if this ordinance passes. Below is a guide to a few of the ways to translate the language into a perversion of the point.

Section 28-236: 1. Under initiative 300, all Denver employees would gain paid sick and safe time as long as they work at least forty hours a year (an amount approximately equal to the time they spend in the shower). With at least one hour of sick leave per 30 hours worked, the max here is 72 hours per year, and your boss isn't forced to let you carry time over to the next one. But pay attention: There's no limit to how much you can take at once -- so if you, like some of us, have been classically trained in fake coughing, your skills might buy you a five-day weekend in the mountains.

Section 28-236: 2. This is where it gets good. According to ordinance 300, I could bail on Westword for mental illness (stress, obsession with a band coming to town, general nostalgia) or the physical kind (that time I tripped walking down Broadway to the office). And while several other terms are clearly defined across three of the plan's sixteen pages, neither of those two are -- and they're arguably the most important. If the person next to me plays ICP and I get a little stressed or freaked, I'm out of here on mental leave.

The same thing goes for the need to take care of a family member, defined early in the document as basically anyone who's not a friend with benefits. Seriously: Aside from spouses and blood and adopted relatives, this includes guardians, domestic partners, the relatives of a spouse and "any other individual related by blood or affinity." I feel a strange affinity for the members of TV on the Radio (who, coincidentally, are playing two nights here soon). Does that count?

3. In what is a very serious section of the ordinance, paid sick leave is allowed for domestic abuse, sexual assault and stalking, which is essentially just adding on to the mental and physical illness claims. The language here guarantees leave for making your home secure and talking to lawyers, but it doesn't indicate any need for proof. We'll get to that later, but this is a larger problem: The ordinance is considerably lax about proof outside of my word as an employee.

4. I'm not required to find a replacement for the work I miss. I'm not going to, but under this ordinance I could essentially just leave in the middle of this blog post and no one could stop me. Under Initiative 300, Ferris Bueller would be paid for his day off.

5. My boss can't require me to provide "unreasonable documentation" of my illness, a spectacularly nebulous stipulation, and I wouldn't have to provide any documentation at all if I don't take more than three days off. Personally, I could think it's unreasonable to provide a doctor's note as documentation, in which case my boss could look at the ordinance for help and subsequently find the same vague language. Point: employee.

Section 28-238: 6. So, Westword would have to let me leave, without an actual excuse, for as many of the 72 hours I want. But the flu-coated cherry on top is that my boss couldn't say anything about it, either. It would be illegal for employers to count anything to do with paid sick leave as a need for "discipline, discharge, demotion, suspension or any other averse action," a list of items for which it's pretty tough to prove motivation. In fact, it's assumed in the wording here that any disciplinary action within ninety days of some sick leave is retaliation. Sure, I took an ax to the copy machine, but I know the real reason you're firing me is that sick weekend I took off at the same time as Coachella. If I were really smart about it (and really in job trouble), it looks like I could take one sick day every ninety days and keep my boss scared to fire me for a year (or even forever).

Section 28-239: 7. Because it would be Westword's job to keep records of all the paid sick leave I've taken, I can also manipulate the system. Any failure to maintain stringent records while, I don't know, putting out a publication every single week and a blog all the time, would be seen as its legal default -- and my gain. Come to think of it, the fact that I've documented all of my plans and published them might actually be the only thing capable of legally helping Westword from being future-exploited.

Read the full proposed initiative here.

More from our Politics archive: "Paid sick days initiative detractors & supporters share why they're on opposite side of issue."

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Kelsey Whipple
Contact: Kelsey Whipple