Could be worse, right?

Image: Rick

 The sign posted a few weeks back on the window at Cherry Street Coffee House said this: “Sick Leave Surcharge: To help offset the costs of the City of Seattle's paid sick leave policy we are adding a 1.5% surcharge to all orders. We appreciate your understanding and continued patronage.”

The reaction was swift and intense. Many took umbrage at the wording and assumed Cherry Street’s proprietor Ali Ghambari was taking a swipe at Seattle’s paid sick leave policy, which went into effect last September. One of those affronted, Whitney, contacted The Stranger blog. "There were many ways (Ghambari) could have dealt with this. He could have upped prices slightly to compensate, for example."

“Instead he chose to call himself out as a royal dickhead for life, because now we all know he wasn't paying for sick leave before forced to by law," The Slog quoted Whitney. Other news outlets reported the story, blogs bulged with negative comments. Ghambari took down the signs. The surcharge remained.  

I spoke with Ghambari last week, and he was rattled from all the negative publicity—much of which was personally directed at him as an employer. In fact, Ghambari insisted (as he had in other media reports) that he’s all for the new law. “We are happy to pay the staff sick leave. We are famous for building community, and you cannot do that in an unhappy house.”  Recent hikes in the prices of coffee and gas compelled him to raise prices in his coffee houses last year, which cost money in menu reprinting. He figured he’d avoid that by tacking on a surcharge. He’d seen similar sick leave surcharges in San Francisco, which along with Washington D.C. also has paid sick leave.

As for citing the law as his reason for the surcharge? Ghambari figured transparency was a boon to good customer service in his seven coffee houses, not a detractor from it. He now admits that had he known then what he knows now—he’d have quietly reprinted his menu with higher prices and not said a word about why.

So what exactly did Ghambari do wrong? If he is a “royal dickhead for life” for not offering paid sick leave until compelled to by law, he is in stellar company: the overwhelming majority of food service operations didn’t do so, either. Molly Moon Neitzel began offering paid sick time to her Molly Moon’s Ice Cream employees last April, but she is one of few exceptions proving a rule not even the famously magnanimous Tom Douglas rose above. Douglas has for years covered medical and dental insurance, even paid vacations, for hourly employees who work over 25 hours weekly. But paid sick leave? Not until he had to.

Ghambari was also criticized for his suggestion, quoted in The Stranger, that the policy was potentially exploitable by employees who might call in sick just “to get a day off.” Bottom line is a legitimate and predictable concern for small business owners, who increasingly report feeling squeezed by everything from payroll taxes (which they pay even on their employees’ tips) to credit card charges. One member of the Seattle Restaurant Alliance said the issue was discussed at a recent meeting with a mayoral candidate, at which certain Alliance members claimed to be adversely affected by the rule, and pressed the candidate hard for his stance on it.

Other restaurateurs have a different view, saying Ghambari’s real fault was assuming paid sick leave to be a bigger problem than it is. Ghambari’s remarks to The Stranger suggested an assumption that sick days could continue to accrue over several years; in fact they are limited to 40 hours per year. The law itself sustains certain checks against cheating. Restaurant owners from Ba Culbert of Tilikum Place Café to Matt Dillon of Sitka and Spruce and The Corson Building to Wassef Haroun of Mamnoon agree that the rule just hasn’t affected their businesses that much. Culbert and Dillon, whose businesses pre-date the rule, haven’t yet had to raise prices specifically to meet the cost.  “There are all sorts of rules that apply to us that cost us money, and you fight the ones you want to fight,” reasons Dillon. “I just build [paid sick leave] into the cost of running the restaurant, and I’m happy to.”

For these restaurateurs, paid sick leave amounts to a relatively small thing for an employer translating to a relatively huge thing for a sick employee. In the bad old days, the make-do spirit of restaurant culture was such that sick employees had to find their own replacements and, failing that, simply powered through their shifts—regardless of whatever bellowing, hacking, and/or spewing ensued. A recent piece in Mother Jones chronicles the obvious horrors of that scenario, citing a Centers for Disease Control study tracing at least 53 percent of Norovirus outbreaks to sick food workers.

I was served recently by an obviously sick waiter. Pale and sweating, the guy mustered a genuinely heroic level of service—until a delayed dish compelled him to apologize that he was under the weather. Why didn’t he take advantage of the new law and call in sick? His boss later speculated that it could have been a number of things. At that restaurant, some 60 to 70 percent of the service staff is on the floor any given night, in which case a waiter’s options are limited.

Or perhaps the waiter didn’t want to give up his tips, which in the odd calculus of restaurant economics make up a far greater share of his take-home pay than his paycheck contributes.

The Washington Restaurant Association is waiting for the close of cold and flu season to compile its post-mortem on how the law did up against the worst flu outbreak in years. Did any restaurateur have to raise prices? Did any lose between $65,000 and $175,000 a year, as one Seattle Restaurant Alliance member publically predicted before the law went into effect?

And, most compelling to diners: How many sick employees actually took sick time off?

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