County joins fight over sick leave

By Pat Caldwell
Malheur Enterprise

VALE – The Malheur County Court has joined a legal effort to secure a legal interpretation regarding Oregon’s paid sick leave law.

Last week, the Court signed a pact to join Linn County in its lawsuit seeking to allow counties to opt out of the law based on a contention that it would be an unfunded mandate.

In all nine counties are on board for the legal challenge.

“Basically it says Malheur County will join Linn County and other counties and petition the court for the interpretation of that provision of the Oregon Constitution which is the unfunded mandate language,” Malheur County Counsel Stephanie Williams said.

Linn County is spearheading the effort and will foot the bill for almost all of the costs of the legal action, Williams said. The cost for Malheur County will be minimal, she said.

“Linn County will pay attorney’s fees. Malheur County will pay for costs and that cost really amounts to staff time in gathering documents if it is needed in the lawsuit or maybe participate in hearings or dispositions if needed,” Williams said.

At the core of this legal skirmish is whether or not the state must reimburse counties for costs connected to the mandatory sick leave law. Under the law, businesses that employ 10 or more employees must give them at least 40 hours of paid sick leave every year. Firms that employ nine or less employees are required to furnish 40 hours of unpaid sick leave a year.

The law – passed by the Legislature in 2015 – pertains to private Federal agencies are excluded from the law.

Opponents cite the Constitution to bolster their argument. They say Article 11, section 15 of the Oregon Constitution implies that if a state mandate compels a local government to create a new program, or for it to augment an existing program “… the State of Oregon shall appropriate and allocate to the local government moneys sufficient to pay the ongoing, usual and reasonable costs of performing the mandated service or activity.”

However, it also stipulates that the requirement for funding won’t apply if a law is passed by three-fifths of the membership of each house in the Legislature. The sick leave law did pass by three-fifths in the House but not in the Senate.

Critics of the sick leave law assert it fits the definition of a program and therefore local entities – such as counties – should be compensated for implementing the agenda.

The Linn County lawsuit is designed to clear up lingering questions regarding who pays – counties or the state – regarding such unfunded mandates as the sick leave law, Williams said.

“This is an opportunity for the counties to have that provision of the Oregon Constitution interpreted. So we can have a court determine the legal effect of that language as it pertains to Oregon sick leave laws. We think it is a way to move the state of Oregon and counties forward,” Williams said. In addition to Linn and Malheur, the counties joining the fray are Yamhill, Douglas, Jefferson, Polk, Sherman, Morrow and Wallowa.

Political observers say the outcome of this challenge could set the stage for a similar battle over the new Oregon minimum wage law., which is phasing into effect in July.