A Denver ballot initiative on requiring employers to offer paid sick leave has drawn a painful divide between small-business owners and their own employees.
Denver's Initiative 300, decided in an all-mail election Tuesday, would allow private employees and city workers to earn up to 72 hours of paid sick leave, depending on the size of the business. For many, it raises the question over whether the issue is a common-sense public-health concern or one that will force restaurants out of business.
City officials have said the sick-leave initiative would cost $690,500 a year to enforce the law and pay part-time city workers who now can't take sick leave — an estimate disputed by supporters of the measure. Low-wage employees who say they can't afford to stay home when they're sick, raising public health concerns, especially in the food service industry.
Opponents of the ballot initiative are a powerful group of business interests that argues the measure goes too far. It has prominent backers, among them Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, a former restaurant owner, and Denver Mayor Michael Hancock, who warns in a television ad that the sick-leave initiative "may look harmless enough, but it's really bad for Denver."
The Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce also opposes the idea, and signs against the initiative hang in many Denver bars and restaurants.
But the low-wage employees on the other side of the argument say they need it.
"I make less than $8.50 an hour, and I'm barely scraping by," said 24-year-old Laura Baker, a Denver coffee barista who has no paid sick leave at Starbuck's. Baker said she's put off by the restaurant industry's campaign against the proposal.
"It almost feels like a personal attack from this huge behemoth of a restaurant industry against me personally, and I'm just trying to work and get by," Baker said.
The sick-leave debate has played out in other large cities, most recently last month in Seattle, where the city council approved required sick leave. Denver's proposal will be decided by voters, not local officials.
Sick-leave requirements are also in place in San Francisco; Washington, D.C.; and Connecticut, where a state law takes effect in January. Milwaukee passed a sick-leave bill in 2008 that was later pre-empted by the state Legislature, and this year Philadelphia's city council passed one that was vetoed by its mayor.
Nationwide, 44 million workers do not have access to paid sick days, according to the advocacy group Family Values at Work. An estimated 107,000 of them are in Denver.