Dozens show for meeting over controversial paid sick time ballot question



ORANGE COUNTY, Fla. - Dozens of people showed up for a meeting Tuesday in which commissioners will decide whether to put dueling questions about paid sick time on the November ballot.

The public hearing is under way, but it filled up so quickly that people had to be turned away. The crowd included employees who desperately need the sick pay and employers who said it would run them out of business.

The ballot question asks voters if the county should force companies with more than 15 employees to provide paid sick leave, but Orange County Commissioner Ted Edwards now wants to change its wording.

"Personally, I don't think at the county level we should be adopting an ordinance that regulates sick leave between a private employer and an employee," Edwards said.

Mayor Teresa Jacobs has said it's not the time to increase costs for companies that are already struggling, but supporters of the measure said it's the employees who are struggling and need the measure to pass.

Pregnant mother of five Eliana Espinosa didn't have time for the meeting, since she works full time at a hotel near the airport, but her husband, a construction worker, attended. Neither gets paid sick leave.

"If you get sick, you don't get paid," said Espinosa. "If you don't get paid, how are you going to manage the little money you earn to pay the bills, rent?"

Royetta Ginther employs about 30 people at two Twistee Treat ice cream shops in Orange County. She said small, family-owned businesses like hers simply can't afford to offer paid sick leave and she doesn't think it's an issue the local government should mess with.

“We know our employees. We know whose mom has cancer. We know whose husband it out of work.  We're there. We're thanking them,” said Ginther.

But supporters of the measure said employers should also be compensating them, specifically one hour of paid sick leave for every 37 hours worked. 

But a study just released by a group of business leaders says 54 percent of businesses affected by the mandate are likely to see reduced profits. And requiring companies to provide paid sick leave could cost between $69 to $82 million per year with a large portion of the costs carried by small businesses. 

 Commissioner Jennifer Thompson also proposed a measure that basically asks voters if this is an issue the county should get involved with in the first place. That's also being discussed in the meeting that's expected to last well into the night.

For 2 ½ months, labor activists collected voter signatures in support of guaranteed sick-time benefits for workers in Orange County.

The more than 50,000 signatures gave their issue a spot on the November ballot, where voters would have the final say.

Edwards questions whether voters will have enough time to digest the issue and its impact on small businesses. Those businesses would be required to provide sick leave for employees, including leave to care for sick family members.

"I believe our board has a duty to make sure that when a ballot goes to the public that the ballot title and the ballot summary accurately describes the action that's being requested," said Edwards.

"Do you think it's misleading in a fashion that would make it more likely to pass?" asked WFTV's Drew Petrimoulx.

"Obviously (it's misleading), and I don't blame them. If I'm trying to get an initiative passed, I'm going to describe it in terms that would make it more likely to pass," said Edwards.

Edwards is an unabashed opponent of mandated sick-time benefits. In a memo sent to county attorneys, Edwards questions if specifics of employers would be affected.

He wants the commission, the majority of which are also opponents of guaranteed sick time, to look at changing the ballot language that voters agreed to when they signed petitions.

But there is confusion among attorneys about whether the commission could legally change ballot language from a citizens' initiative.

"I feel like at the end of the day, what is right will come out," said Tatiana Torres, of Organize Now.

To counter the question, another commissioner wants to include another ballot question about whether county leaders should all-out refrain from getting involved in similar employment issues.