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The rise and fall of Minneapolis’ Working Families Agenda

Six months after Mayor Betsy Hodges made the agenda the focus of her state of the city address, the once-ambitious plan is now a lot less ambitious.

Political retreat on the Working Families Agenda came after intense opposition from business groups both large and small.
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan

Call it the Incredible Shrinking Working Families Agenda.

Well over a year ago — in an effort to build on momentum from other cities — Minneapolis labor, community and religious groups began advocating for local ordinances to boost conditions for the working poor.

They wanted a local minimum wage ordinance that would pay up to $15 an hour. They wanted the city to enforce existing state and federal laws against so-called wage theft — not paying workers for all hours worked or paying extra for overtime. They wanted mandatory paid sick leave. And they wanted a fair-scheduling ordinance that would require advance notice of work schedules and a legal requirement that workers be paid for last-minute changes or cancellations in work shifts.

Taken together, the measures were promoted as the Working Families Agenda. And many of Minneapolis’s elected leadership articulated their support. Though Mayor Betsy Hodges gave only qualified backing to the minimum wage initiative — she said she thought the city should seek a regional solution rather than go it alone — the rest of the agenda became the centerpiece of her April state of the city speech.

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“Today I am proud to announce that I, in cooperation with council members, advocates and the business community, am championing a Minneapolis Working Families Agenda,” Hodges said at the time.

The city council soon followed by creating a workplace policies work group and directing staff to draw up proposed ordinance language to implement the bulk the agenda: fair scheduling, sick leave and wage theft. Council also commissioned a study of the economics of implementing local minimum wage hike.

That was then. Today, six months after Hodges unveiled the agenda, the once-ambitious plan is less so. While paid sick leave is still being pushed by Hodges and council leaders, the fair-scheduling issue has been tabled, with no set schedule for its return. And while the minimum wage study is expected to be finished by spring, one council member predicted it won’t change the fact that a higher local wage lacks the votes to pass the council.

The backtracking begins

The political retreat (called “incredibly disappointing” by one advocacy group) came after intense opposition from business groups both large and small.

The former, from organizations such as the Minneapolis Regional Chamber, the restaurant association and retail associations, wasn’t a surprise; they’d already pushed state lawmakers to pass a law preempting local governments from acting independently.

But the intensity of the outrage from small businesses clearly came as a surprise to elected officials. Public meetings drew hundreds of small merchants, businesses and restaurants, many of them well known to council members, and many of them complaining that it would be nearly impossible to schedule workers 28 days in advance, one of the chief provisions of the agenda.

And many saw the so-called “predictability pay” around scheduling for workers not as compensation for disruptions to an employee’s life, but as penalty to employers. Then, when well-known restaurant La Belle Vie closed and chef/owner Tim McKee cited the Working Families Agenda as one of the reasons, foodies joined the chorus against the rules.

The backtracking happened in two steps. On Oct. 6, Mayor Hodges and City Council Vice President Elizabeth Glidden announced they were softening some of the provisions in the draft: cutting the advance notice scheduling requirement from four weeks to two. They also said they would make sure the ordinance didn’t prevent flexible work schedules that some employees enjoy, such a 10-hour-a-day, four-day work week. And they said they favored a more gradual phase-in for small businesses. The also said the city should help small businesses adopt the technology that might make scheduling easier.

Both said they did so in response to concerns, and both said they were open to additional changes in response to further input. But opposition to the agenda didn’t let up. Eight days later, Hodges put the issue on hold so as to concentrate effort and political capital on the paid sick leave proposal.

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Though the mayor’s decision had been made earlier, the announcement of it came just hours after the Star Tribune reported that the state’s largest companies had agreed to oppose the entire agenda, and the timing fed the resentment among agenda supporters.

“How are 80 big businesses more important than thousands of workers?” said Mica Grimm, of Black Lives Matter, during a march on city hall Thursday.

Nekima Levy-Pounds, the president of the Minneapolis NAACP, was even more pointed in describing the seeming disconnect between officials’ responsiveness to residents on different ends of the economic spectrum: “It’s the best of times if you’re white, and the worst of times if you’re black,” she said. “We need our elected officials to stop yielding to corporations and start yielding to the people.”

A sweeping strategy 

Glidden always pointed out that the staff-written drafts were just that — drafts — and that the actual ordinances probably would look different. The purpose was to put the issue in front of residents with enough specificity that they could comment on how each aspect would or wouldn’t work for them. Large business groups, for example, had been saying since May that they would wait for specific language before they weighed in.

MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
Well over a year ago — in an effort to build on momentum from other cities — Minneapolis labor, community and religious groups began advocating for local ordinances to boost conditions for the working poor.

If using the sweeping draft language to spur conversation was the plan, it worked. Comments both pro and con were often accompanied by personal stories. Workers spoke of not being able to take needed second jobs or classes because they could never be sure when they would be available. Others complained that their home lives and care of children was frequently disrupted by on-call shifts. Still others told of how they went to work sick, even in jobs in the food industry or with frequent customer interaction because they needed the money or feared losing their jobs if they stayed home.

Businesses too told of how their work didn’t allow for scheduling workers a month in advance. Restaurant owners told of last-minute bookings — or last-minute cancellations — of large parties, and the unpredictability of staffing for outdoor seating areas that could become suddenly popular with unexpected good weather or suddently deserted in a rain storm.

A tow-truck operator asked how he was to schedule drivers far in advance when snowstorms and cold snaps might hit with days notice, not weeks? And though sponsors said they didn’t intend the ordinance to cover salaried employees, nothing in the draft said that.

The expansive language — especially of the fair scheduling plan — had another effect. It drew opponents from a wider swath of the community. The draft was so sweeping that it far exceeded the reach of the only existing fair scheduling law in the nation: San Francisco’s. That pioneering law covered only franchises and chains — fast food outlets, chain restaurants and stores, franchises like tax preparation offices, as well as some custodial and security companies that provide services for large chains.

Being more-sweeping than San Francisco opened the proposal to accusations of overreaching. People who might have been supporters found themselves opposing some of the details. Notably, the state chapter of The Main Street Alliance, a progressive small business coalition that has supported sick leave and minimum wage hikes in other cities, asked for changes including the shorter, 14-day notice, requirement.

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Is fair scheduling dead? 

After the retreat, Hodges and another key supporter, Council Member Lisa Bender, pledged to keep working on the fair scheduling plan in hopes of bringing it back. “We should not stop looking for a solution until it stops being a problem,” Hodges said.

Both said they wanted to listen to the continuing concerns of opponents and try to come up with a plan that worked for everyone. Bender said there has been far more interaction with residents on the Working Families Agenda than on any issue in her memory. She said she alone attended 10 community meetings and she and her staff members have met one-on-one with dozens of people with concerns.

And business groups, ranging from the Minneapolis Regional Chamber to the Southwest Business Association, have said they want to sit down with the city to work on the issue. But talking and agreeing are two different things.

Todd Klingel

On Friday, Todd Klingel, president and CEO of the Minneapolis Regional Chamber of Commerce, said at a city hall meeting of the Workforce Fairness Coalition — a group organized by the chamber to oppose the Working Families Agena — that he doesn’t think an ordinance is needed. Instead, he favors creating best practices for scheduling and sick leave followed by an education effort to persuade businesses to adopt them.

He urged those at the meeting, which was also attended by four council members, to not even talk about fair scheduling, “because the more we talk about it, maybe they’ll say ‘maybe we do need to bring it back.’ So let’s not be responsible for that happening, and let’s let it die the death it has.”

What’s unclear is whether a fair-scheduling ordinance will return as a council issue, and whether there are enough votes on the council to pass it if it does. There were skeptical questions during a presentation earlier this month, especially of an academic expert who said the effects of fair scheduling on large businesses weren’t onerous despite the fact that she had done no research on small business.

Council President Barbara Johnson did not rule out considering the measure in her remarks to the business groups Friday. After saying the objections from city business owners had “raised her consciousness,” Johnson said the issues remain important.

“I don’t want the efforts that we’re trying to make to help the people at the very end of the economic spectrum to be lost in this,” she said. “We have a responsibility to address that, but I think we should do it in conjunction with you and in common.”

Sick leave takes center stage

While it appears the hardest planks of the platform have been delayed — minimum wage and fair scheduling — sick leave has not been easy in the other localities that have tried to adopt it. Only four states, 19 cities and one county in the U.S. have mandatory paid sick leave laws or ordinances currently on the books.

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The Minneapolis draft would require the accumulation of one hour of leave for every 30 hours worked. Employees couldn’t use their leave until they worked at a job for 90 days, and workplaces with 21 or more employees would have to allow accrual of 72 hours a year. Smaller businesses would have to allow accrual of 40 hours. Unused time could be rolled over to the next year but never total more than 72 hours or 40 hours.

One proposal, to allow a worker to transfer accrued sick leave from one employer to another, does not appear in the latest draft, and Bender accused the chamber of spreading false information about the provision.

Some on the council have suggested simplifying the sick leave policy, perhaps by having employees accumulate personal time off that can be used however the employee wishes. But the business groups that were focused on the scheduling measure are now redirecting their opposition to sick leave. “I was asked in an interview yesterday, ‘What do we think of that?’ And I said, ‘Frankly, they had us looking at the big shiny object of scheduling that we haven’t put as much effort into sick time, but I can rattle off a number of problems,” Klingel said Friday.

But Council Member Andrew Johnson, who has focused his efforts on paid sick leave rather than the fair scheduling part of the agenda, said he thinks it remains something the council can and will do. Johnson said he has been active on making Minneapolis more business-friendly. But he said he doesn’t think it will harm businesses, and may even help them. “I’m convinced that some level of paid sick is not just a win for workers but for employers and the community as well,” Johnson said.

He sees paid sick leave as a public health issue but said the council needs to get the detail rights and should take the time necessary to do that.

Advocates, already reeling from seeing support among elected officials for minimum wage and fair scheduling disappear, are increasing pressure for the council to act, however. They visited most council offices after their own rally Thursday.

An agenda becomes ‘a conversation’

Hodges said last week she is still pursuing the wage theft issue, but there has not been a draft proposal presented. Glidden doesn’t think there will be. Instead, she envisions a more-formal relationship between the city and state agencies that enforce wage and hour laws. Bender said the enforcement systems created to enforce the sick leave rules could also respond to complaints about wage theft, but enforcement might then come from the state.

The minimum-wage study has not yet been awarded to a contractor, something that will require a council vote. The decision to seek contractors, however, wasn’t unanimous. Council members Barbara Johnson and Blong Yang said they wanted to get a legal opinion from the city attorney on whether state law already preempts local action. And Council Member Lisa Goodman said she didn’t think there were enough votes for the higher wage, so the study would be wasteful.

“If there were seven votes to create a minimum wage in Minneapolis only, we’d be doing it,” Goodman said on Sept. 23. “So I’m just wondering why spend $175,000 for a study? What is that, a political out? I’ll vote for the study, but I really wouldn’t vote for the change itself?”

Council Member Alondra Cano said it makes sense to have as much information before the council as possible. And the study seeks to answer questions about the economic impacts of having a higher wage within the city limits and a lower wage outside.

“A lot of people are interested in this conversation,” she said.