Ill-Conceived Law

It just got easier for San Franciscans with the sniffles to stay home in bed, slurping orange juice and watching Seinfeld reruns. The paid sick leave ordinance that voters approved in November went into effect Monday, and every worker within city limits began accruing sick time, racking up one hour for every 30 hours worked. The bighearted ordinance applies to everyone: full-time office slaves, part-time fry cooks, and bored temps answering phones.

There's only one problem. Business owners all over the city are too confused to implement it.

"It really has caused some consternation," says Nancy Ober, an employment and labor law attorney at Littler Mendelson. Merchants are still trying to figure out the niggling details of the law. The questions stack up fast: How much should employees who work for tips be compensated? What about those who work on commission? How about telecommuters? If an Oakland business occasionally sends workers into the city, what are those workers entitled to?

Kevin Westlye, executive director of the Golden Gate Restaurant Association, says that his office is fielding phone calls every day from business owners, and one question keeps coming up. "They ask, are we going to litigate it and the answer is no," says Westlye.

With no chance of making the law disappear, business owners are hoping for the next best thing: more time. Supervisor Sean Elsbernd says the city attorney determined that it would be illegal to delay the law's implementation, so last week he introduced an ordinance that "goes as far as we can." He's suggesting a four-month transition period, during which workers would collect and could take their sick time. However, employers could delay payment for four months while they work out the logistics, and would not be penalized for doing so.

Elsbernd blames the ballot measure's broad language for the citywide confusion. "If there was ever evidence of why we need to reform how we put measures on the ballot, this is it," he says.

While Elsbernd's proposal seems to give business owners the wiggle room they desperately need, they'll have to wait for it. In the best-case scenario, he says, the ordinance could come before the Board of Supervisors Feb. 27. Until then, business owners are in legal limbo, trying to comply with a law that they don't understand. At least HR people with ulcers can take a few days off and drown their worries in daytime television.

 
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