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Bill would bar cities, towns from mandating employee benefits

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PHOENIX – A state lawmaker wants to bar Arizona cities and towns from requiring private employers to provide benefits like sick days and meal breaks.

HB 2280, authored by Rep. Tom Forese, R-Chandler, would keep the power to regulate benefits at the state level.

Sherry Gillespie, government relations manager at the Arizona Restaurant Association, told the Senate Committee on Commerce, Energy and Military, which endorsed the measure Wednesday, that the change would protect service industry employers from city mandates.

Several cities, including San Francisco, Seattle, Portland, Ore., and Washington, D.C., have enacted ordinances requiring employers to provide paid sick days and break time.

“What’s happening is there are targeted ordinances at the local level that affect businesses by way of mandating sick days, vacation time, vacation policies, those sorts of things,” Gillespie said. “They don’t consider how we already have a very, very flexible work schedule as well as we operate on very tight margins.”

Gillespie said Arizona’s restaurant industry employs about 250,000 people across about 8,500 restaurants and did roughly $10.1 billion in business in 2012. That figure is expected to grow to $10.6 billion this year, and the industry expects to increase its workforce by 25 percent over the next 10 years, she said.

Forese’s bill has cleared the House and was headed to the full Senate.

Brendan Walsh, executive director of Central Arizonans for a Sustainable Economy, said the vast majority of service industry positions are “poverty jobs,” meaning that an employee works full time but can still barely pay his or her bills. Many of these workers can’t afford to miss a day of work, so this quickly becomes a public health issue, Walsh said.

“Half the population in our state lives below $30,000 a year, and they work in very taxing, minimum wage jobs,” he said. “At a certain point you get hurt more, you get sick more, and if you can’t go to the doctor you don’t get better, you’re more likely to have deteriorating chronic conditions.”

Arizona state Rep. Jonathan Larkin, D-Glendale, pushed unsuccessfully for two bills this session that would have mandated employee benefits. HB 2639 would have required meal breaks and rest periods, while HB 2640 would have required private employers to offer paid sick time for all employees.

Employee benefit mandates would affect all private employees in Arizona, not just restaurant workers.

Isabell Marquez, a custodian at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport, said the company she works for doesn’t offer paid sick days and requires a doctor’s note if an employee calls off sick.

“You show them proof but you still don’t get paid from it, so you’re paying double,” Marquez said. “It’s coming out of your pocket and you’re short on your check, so what do you do? You have to go to work sick.”

Walsh said groups like the Arizona Restaurant Association and other opponents of mandatory paid sick time are trying to act before demographics force political change.

“Over the last four years, Latino and working families have come to vote as they’ve never voted before,” Walsh said. “It is quite possible that something like this could pass in the city of Phoenix now where it couldn’t have five years ago, and I think they see the writing on the wall and are trying to sort of step in to try and preempt it.”

Forese, the author, said Monday that his bill is an attempt to ensure uniformity for business owners so that they don’t have to deal with different requirements in different jurisdictions. Varied requirements become expensive, he said, an issue that becomes a major concern for small businesses, especially restaurants.

“The restaurant industry is really a unique animal,” Forese said. “On the one hand it accounts for just over $10 billion in sales – last year’s numbers – and has 260,000 employees. At the same time, as big a monster as it is, is is a business run on razor-thin margins.”

He discounted claims that restaurant workers come to work ill because they lack paid sick time.

“Being familiar enough to remember washing dishes (in college), if you come in sick they turn you around and have you go back home,” Forese said.

Ultimately, he said, the bill is about ensuring a balanced approach to workers’ rights and a business-friendly environment.

“I believe that with this bill we’ve found a balance,” he said. “This is something that can help us find an equilibrium where we’re taking care of business and not sacrificing the worker.”