Changes In Sick Pay and Attendance Policies At Seattle Times

On Friday, August 31, the HR department of the Times announced a number of changes to the Sick Pay, Attendance, and Discipline policies, effective September 1, in order to bring them into line with Seattle’s Paid Sick and Safe Time Ordinance (PSST). The information the Times sent out did a good job of explaining how the new policies will work in the future. However, it did not offer much explanation of why the changes were necessary, and how the new plan compares with the old one. While the new plan appears complicated and may be confusing at first, it preserves all existing sick leave benefits, and will make it easier to understand how much sick time you have available and when you can actually use it. Overall, it is a net gain for Guild members.

What new requirements were created by the PSST ordinance?

For an employer the size of the Times, the most basic requirements of the ordinance are that full-time employees must earn a minimum of 72 hours of paid sick time per calendar year (pro-rated for part-time workers) and be able to roll over or “bank” a total of 72 hours of sick time.

This part of the ordinance caused no real problems for the Times, because for most employees, Times policy was already more generous in both areas. (An exception to this was the Composing unit, which had no sick leave provision in the contract.) At the Times, full-time employees earned 80 hours per year of paid sick time (pro-rated for part-timers) and unused time could be “banked” up to a total of 1,040 hours.

However, Times policy conflicted with the PSST ordinance in three important areas:

1)   The ordinance requires that if employees have time in their sick leave bank at the time of the absence, they can use up to 72 hours per year of sick time before being disciplined for attendance.

2)   Limits on use must be tracked on the basis of a calendar year (January 1 thru December 31).

3)   The amount of currently available “banked” sick time must be regularly reported to employees.

Times policy came up short on point (1) because under the company’s “Two Percent” attendance policy, employees could miss only five days of work per year (just over 40 hours for full-time employee) before possibly being disciplined for attendance. It came up short on point (2) because the company’s “Two Percent” attendance policy tracked attendance on the basis of a rolling year, so that any employee’s active attendance record always counted from one year prior to the current date. And it came up short on point (3) because the “bank” of sick time was not posted anywhere, but could only be obtained by calling the payroll department.

How does the “two-banks” plan announced by the Times try to fix the conflict between Times policy and the ordinance?

 The problem for the Times was clearly the attendance policy. As evidenced by the “Two Percent” policy, the Times places a high priority on limiting casual absenteeism (to put it as diplomatically as possible). Yet the ordinance allows up to 72 hours of missed time per year (or nine missed days as opposed to five) if the time is available in the bank; and the average Guild member had about 635 hours of sick time banked at the time of the change. It appears that in making the changes the way they did, the Times was trying to avoid making too much time available for casual absences too quickly.

However, to be fair to the Times, simply telling people the grand total of hours in their current sick bank could create confusion, by making it appear that they could use all that time in the current year for any type of absence. That’s not the requirement of the ordinance and it’s not any type of recognized reasonable attendance policy.

So the company came up with the solution of setting up two different banks of sick time, to be used for different types of absences. The first, the Extended Illness Bank (EIB) takes everyone’s current sick leave bank and sets it aside to pay for any absence approved under FMLA, the Washington Family Care Act, or the six-month medical leave provision of the Guild contract. It is for these types of absences that most sick leave gets used, and for which it is the most valuable. At this point, everyone should remember that these types of absences have always been exempt from attendance discipline, even under the “Two Percent” discipline policy, and therefore nothing is changing under the new policy.

An absence qualifies for FMLA coverage if it involves all or part of at least four consecutive days, and you are under professional medical care of some kind. Chronic, recurring conditions that create shorter, intermittent absences may also be covered. You should always ask your medical provider if your injury or illness constitutes an FMLA-qualifying condition, and report it to the company if it does, so that it is accurately recorded on your attendance record.

The second bank is the Sick and Safe Time Bank (SST). This bank is intended to cover any illness that would keep you from work, but does not meet FMLA conditions, and also certain other emergency situations specified by the PSST ordinance. This bank starts at zero, effective September 1, and employees will earn and may use up to 80 hours of SST time per year.

The SST bank and the “Two Percent” policy:

One important fact that was not explicitly spelled out in the Times announcement is that the SST bank effectively replaces the “Two Percent” standard as the key to the attendance policy. As of September 1, the “Two Percent” standard is gone. Instead of facing a warning if non-FMLA absences rise above five days in a rolling year, employees will face a warning only if they have a non-FMLA absence and they do not have time in their SST bank to cover it. Assuming the SST time is available, this could be as many as 80 hours in a calendar year before any type of disciplinary warning.

What’s the deal with the seven-month “transition period”?

Since the SST bank is officially starting at zero, and because discipline for attendance on non-FMLA absences is now tied to whether or not there is sufficient time in the SST bank, there is a risk that someone who misses one or two days the next few months could receive a warning simply because they had not yet accumulated enough time in their SST bank to cover the absence, even if they have previously gone years with no other absences. The Times, to their credit, realized that this would not be fair. So until April 1 of next year, anyone who runs out of SST time can use up to 24 hours of EIB time to cover the shortfall. By April 1 of next year, a full-time employee will have had the opportunity to accrue almost 50 hours of SST time, and therefore should be able to safely cover incidental non-FMLA absences to the extent envisioned in the PSST ordinance.

Why do I have to go online to check my SST balance?

 The PSST ordinance simply says that available sick time must be reported to employees and updated every time wages are paid; it does not specify how this must be done, and permits doing it exclusively online. The Times has elected to follow the minimum reporting requirements and require employees to actively check their own balances. Every employee will be able to access their SST bank information through the UltiPro payroll record system. The information sent out by the Times on Friday contains instructions on how to set up your UltiPro account, if you haven't done so already.

Could the Times have provided fewer benefits if they wanted to?

 Yes. There is nothing in the PSST ordinance that requires the company to keep the 1,040-hour-maximum EIB banks in place. Also, the 80 hours of SST time accruing each year is eight hours more than the minimum of 72 required by the ordinance. The company retains control over design of any sick leave plan, as long as it meets the minimum standards of the ordinance.

What the company cannot do is design a sick leave plan that is more generous to some employees than to others. Section 15 of the Guild contract says that Guild employees “shall benefit from the same sick-pay policy as is made applicable to the Publisher’s managerial and unaffiliated employees.” As long as the Times believes there is a benefit to retaining a more generous sick-leave benefit like the EIB bank for their managers and other staff, they must retain it for Guild members as well.

Why is the Times applying the terms of the Seattle PSST ordinance to all Guild employees, when some of them work outside Seattle city limits?

 The Times could probably get away with having two different policies, one inside Seattle city limits, where the PSST ordinance legally applies, and one outside, where it does not. The Times has informed the Guild that it regards itself as legally and contractually able to do this. However, this would almost certainly be a huge administrative headache. Therefore, the company says that it is electing to have one policy, based on the PSST ordinance, and will apply it uniformly through all Guild departments.

At the end of the day, is the new policy a net gain or loss for Guild members?

 Overall it is a net gain:

  • No actual accrued paid sick time has been lost. Via the EIB bank, everyone retains access to their full accrued time in case of extended illness. Because any long-term illness would qualify for FMLA leave anyway, there is no problem having this time in a separate bank.
  • The “Two Percent” attendance policy has always put a practical limit on how much sick time employees could use for non-FMLA illnesses. The SST bank will allow employees to actually use paid sick leave for non-FMLA absences at a significantly more generous rate than under the “Two Percent” policy.
  • Employees will need to make sure that they have SST time available before an absence, and will need to check their balance online. However, this should be simpler and clearer than calculating how many prior absences they have accrued in their “rolling year,” as under the “Two Percent” policy.

The Guild will still want to keep a close eye on how all this works in practice, especially any warnings that get issued in cases where people don’t have time in their SST bank. The PSST ordinance also allows the company to seek additional information if there appears to be a “pattern of abuse” in the use of sick leave. The Guild will also want to make sure that policy in that area is conducted respectfully and fairly as well.

How can I get additional information about the PSST ordinance and sick leave policy at the Times?

 Seattle’s Office of Civil Rights has a lot of good information about PSST at this website:

Please also share any other concerns you may have, and your experience, good or bad, in attempting to navigate the new system. If any issues appear to be inconsistent with the Guild contract or with the PSST ordinance, we will take them up with company.


Posted on September 11, 2012 and filed under SEATTLE TIMES.