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'Working Families Agenda' sparks debate among small business owners in Minneapolis

Danny Schwartzman, owner of Common Roots Cafe on Lyndale
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
Danny Schwartzman, owner of Common Roots Cafe on Lyndale, speaking during Thursday's press conference.

It’s a little hard to have a dialogue about a controversial set of proposals called the “Working Families Agenda” when participants can’t even get past the title.

The agenda itself, put forward by the Minneapolis City Council, contains a series of proposals that would require that workers in the city have the ability to earn paid sick leave. It also calls for detailed rules about how workers are scheduled. The ideas are all part of a national movement to prod local governments to do what federal and state government haven’t done or can’t do: increase protections for lower-wage workers.

But at two different meetings of small business owners Thursday, concerns were raised even before anybody got to the details of the draft proposal.

One of the meetings was a listening session with Council Member Elizabeth Glidden and business owners that was sponsored by the Southwest Business Association. In her introductory remarks, Glidden said she had heard from some who object to the use of the name Working Families Agenda because it implies a divide between employees and employers.

The other meeting was a press conference by a group of small business owners who support the concepts in the agenda, but want a voice in making the details more practical. The event turned into more of a debate when business owners opposing the proposal — who had also shown up — voiced objections.

“I feel like if you’re against it, you’re against working families,” said Jacob Toledo, who is an owner of Jesters Concepts, the restaurant company that owns Borough, Coup d’Etat and Marche. “We’re not against working families. We’re for making everyone’s life better.”  

'Let's talk about how we can do this'

The Main Street Alliance, which has affiliates in 14 states, has supported issues such as higher minimum wages and paid sick days and opposed fast track authority for the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement. The Minnesota branch generally supports the draft proposals released last month by city staff, but says the plan did not have adequate involvement from business owners.

The alliance has also proposed changes to the proposals. For example, while the current draft says employers must post schedules 28 days ahead and pay employees extra when schedule changes are made, Main Street suggests 14 days would be more workable. It also would like the requirements phased in for small businesses, perhaps over 18 months.

The Working Families Agenda is a response to complaints about just-in-time scheduling, in which employees might have little notice that they will be called into work or who have work shifts canceled at the last minute. The first puts pressure on workers with other jobs or with children who must find child care. The second costs workers income.

“Let’s talk about how we can do this,” said Danny Schwartzman, who owns Common Roots Cafe on Lyndale and is part of the Main Street Alliance. “Let’s not say ‘no.’ Let’s say what can we do. What’s practical. What works for employees and employers, especially small businesses in our community.”

Julie Kearns, Danny Schwartzman and Frank Brown
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
Julie Kearns, Danny Schwartzman and Frank Brown, members of the Main Street Alliance of Minnesota, listen to other small business owners who oppose a Minneapolis worker rights proposal that Main Street generally supports.

But business owners who are not members of the alliance but who showed up at Schwartzman’s cafe saw little in the drafts of the Working Families Agenda that they supported. Toledo mentioned the effects on restaurants with large patios, such as Psycho Suzy’s Motor Lounge in Northeast. The restaurant might schedule wait staff and kitchen staff in anticipation of a crowded patio but have to close it because it rained that day. A tow-truck operator told Glidden at her meeting that he doesn’t know the weather four weeks ahead of time and risks not having enough workers for a snow emergency.

According to the current draft of the rules, workers would be able to refuse shifts that were not on the 28-day schedule without fear of retaliation, and would have to give written consent should they choose to accept the hours. Even then, they would get an added hour of “predictability pay.” They would be owed predictability pay totalling four hours or the duration of the shift, whichever is less, for shift cancellations made with less than 24-hours notice.

'Why does everything have to be a penalty?'

The concepts have the backing of most, likely a majority, of city council members as well as Mayor Betsy Hodges.

“Why does everything have to be a penalty, and such a one-sided penalty?” said Deepak Nath, a partner in Empire Entertainment. “Are they going to pay us predictability scheduling pay if we schedule them and they don’t show up?”

Nath also complained that the city had not reached out to small businesses, and that council seems intent on passing the ordinances by the end of the year. The comment period on the city’s webpage ends Oct. 16, and Glidden has said she would like ordinances voted on by December.

Schwartman said: “I think the question here is, do we want to be the industry of ‘Hell no’ or do we want to be the industry of ‘Let’s figure out what’s practical’?”

“We want to be the industry that this is our business model and we build our business and we have to take care of our employees,” said Nath, who said he was representing the Workforce Fairness Coalition, a Minneapolis Regional Chamber of Commerce-sponsored coalition of business groups, whose stated goal is to “push back against a ‘solution’ in search of a problem.”

“There’s a lot of good that can come out of this, but there’s also a lot of bad,” Toledo said. The bad, he said, was that it could hurt their businesses so drastically that “we have to make changes that affect our employees so much that it hurts their livelihood, it hurts their incomes and it hurts their families. So now this is the working AGAINST families agenda.”

At times, Schwartzman became a stand-in for city officials or backers of the drafts, something he resisted. “The ordinance isn’t written yet, so I don’t support what isn’t written.”

Pleading for patience

At the earlier meeting, at City Church, about 100 people filled a small meeting room to tell Glidden how the ordinances would hurt their businesses. Molly Broder, who has owned restaurants at 50th and Penn for 33 years, said she offers health insurance and paid time-off to her workers.

“But I could not have done that in the first five years or even the first 10 years of my business,” Broder said. Gail Mollner, co-owner of Blackbird Cafe, said she recently staffed up for a large dinner party that cancelled at the last minute. She kept the staff working, but said “I lost money that day. Where’s my predictability pay?”

Main Street Alliance members tried to respond to the angry response of those opposed to the proposals. Julie Kearns, who owns Junket: Tossed and Found, said during the back and forth with other business owners that she understood the emotions they expressed, but asked for some patience.

“It’s a draft, so it is not done yet,” Kearns said. “So we’re here. It’s later than it should have been. The language was poorly written, and the language talks about burdening us and absolutely we’re responding with fear. It’s a normal response. It’s a fear response.” But she asked the business people to think about the workers who would benefit from the changes.

“This will change how I do business, but it’s not about me,” Kearns said. “And it’s not about my employees … It’s about thousands of other employees that other businesses are employing in our city that don’t have the protections they need.”

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Comments (8)

The bureaucrats and the politicians

will not quit until all small businesses are forced to automate every task that's currently being performed by a low-skill or unskilled employee because it won't be feasible to hire, train and pay real human beings at the costs imposed by government. Then what?

It's already being phased in with more server-less restaurants, touch screen ordering and paying from the tables and other strategies designed to reduce head count. I guarantee you that every restaurant owner at that meeting is considering his options as a result of these city-imposed rules.

The problem is, most jobs available for young "working families" in this "booming economy" is in the services industry because the unions and the tax code have forced the manufacturing jobs to move overseas.

For those who have never run

For those who have never run a business, having employees not show up or call in sick is way more prevalent than asking workers for over time work or emergency hours due to an unexpected rush. As far as 14 days of paid sick leave goes, look at the last calendar month of the business where that years sick leave expires, unbelievably the majority of employees with days of paid sick leave available, get sick. We called it Company Flu, way more catchy that Swine Flu.
When I hear the advocators for all these proposals I wonder if they have ever run a business or understand the hardship that comes with trying to start a small business? There are so many regulations that hamper small businesses adding more will not help employ anyone!! Isn't the main focus getting folks working again? In a country were 95M working age folks are out of the work force, please don't make it harder!

Would the ordinance also apply to the COM employees?

Perhaps Council should look into its own backyard first. Or do they intend to exempt themselves from the scheduling ordinance?

The business community is

The business community is going to have to realize that they have cried
Wolf" on every single sensible workplace reform that's been brought up in the past century, causing a lot of us to say "There they go again" with this new protest against worker protections. The sky will always fall. They will always have to fire half their staff. They will be forced out of business. They will have to replace counter personnel with robots and smart phones. If they could threaten to move to Taiwan or Hanjin, they would.

Categorically, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce (and all its local affiliates) is virulently anti-worker, in knee-jerk fashion. They've lost credibility on any worker issue.

Our capitalist business world hates any expense related to paying live people to work for them. Everything we see business and manufacturing do is an attempt to pay less, pay fewer, make workers jump through incredible and life-deadening hoops to keep their jobs. I hope our City Council can find the right language, but we need an ordinance that prohibits many of the egregious employer-forced work and scheduling problems that have been identified and that Council is trying to address.

Most of these efforts

Most of these efforts have the effect of favoring large corporations over small businesses and always have. Large businesses like Target or TGU Fridays have the infrastructure in place to create tools to deal with regulations and the attorneys needed to argue the never ending litigation based on them. The smaller and more local businesses are the ones who get squeezed out.

The way people try to implement these ideals are so ham-fisted and clueless that one reason for so much pushback is that it is obvious that those who propose and support them have never had to actually do what they are asking others to do. Yes, many of the complaints from businesses have been repeated but the truth is the effects are real. There is a reason that Europe constantly has higher unemployment then the U.S..

Regulations increase costs and don't increase productivity. More regulations on employment makes labor more expensive and does so in a way that doesn't reward the worker. The business simply needs to spend more time on paperwork and lawyers and will stop hiring people who are difficult to schedule. Resumes from people with kids or who are going to school will drop to the bottom of the pile because any shifts they need to make will have a huge cost to the employer. Policies that put sever penalties on employees for not showing up when scheduled will become the norm and any sort of flexibility will be out the window.

Advocates fro these policies don't care about the macro effects or the fact that in balance more people might be harmed than helped. That these ideas will result in higher structural unemployment, that is just a number after all, or that it will reduce economic diversity and the number of local businesses in favor of larger corporations. They will find another rule to counter the effects of this one, and then one again for the effects of that , and so on.

If advocates of these rules really had the courage of their convictions they would simply say Minneapolis will promise all residents a minimum income, number of sick days and so on and then pay for it out of the city budget. Openly raising taxes to make it happen. Instead they want to hide the costs of their policies by making others pay the price.

unworkable

It sounds to me like this proposal was written by big companies and franchise chains, because it creates another advantage for them. A person couldn't run a small restaurant or coffee shop on this basis, it's completely unworkable. As always in these cases, the end result will be exactly the opposite of what was intended, as business owners will have to avoid hiring people that might put them in these no-win situations.

Poorly Thought Out

This draft proposal appears to have been written without a lot of thought and perhaps to stake out an extreme position as a point of negotiating leverage. There are many aspects that have gotten a lot of negative coverage, deservedly so.

The notion that businesses can predict with 4 week notice their labor demands exceeds even the demands of the limited regulations in place in California, where 2 week regulations apply to large employers (who presumably have more options how they manage changes in demand). The Minneapolis regulations apply to employers with as few as 1 employee. The last time I checked, the weather was a fairly unpredictable actor in Minnesota so to think that any industry with a dependency on the outside could know a month out what to staff for, well that's not reality. There is no accommodation for this reality in the draft.

The 28 day rule also sets up an interesting dilemma about how often you update the schedule, if you publish a work schedule weekly you will be routinely in violation of the 28 day rule unless you are actually publishing for five weeks out instead, so that at the end of that week you still have 28 days scheduled on the books. Again this appears to have not been thought out by the draft writers, five weeks would be even less realistic than four.

Secondly there is a 100% one-sidedness to this draft in terms of penalties and obligations so as to create a dangerous cascade. For example, Employees have no penalty to miss a shift, for example, and must be accommodated if they want a flexible schedule for example to take a second job. This though creates for the employer gaps in their 28 day schedule, which they must fill with extra staff, and pay a predictability pay" penalty to the other staff they brought in. So employers are now paying a penalty to bring in workers to accommodate a different worker who fails to show or changes schedule, without penalty. If you were a suspicious person you can easily envision a symbiotic scenario where employees mutually benefit by missing shifts which the other then picks up along with this bonus.

Apologists for this draft will cite abuses by employers, difficult scheduling and other issues as justification without addressing the specific flaws in this draft or acknowledging that aspects are completely unworkable. They will say the businesses are crying wolf and they have this coming. They need instead to address the legitimate criticisms addressed beyond "businesses will adapt". that's a cop out.

Unfortunately our City Hall leaders rather than reach across the community to get multiple perspectives from employers and employees to create this draft seems to have taken the "wish lists" of labor advocacy groups and drafted something with open hostility toward employers in the city, an unnecessarily antagonistic position that has setup an immediate response of defensiveness and incredulity. As a resident of Minneapolis I'm very disappointed with how the Mayor and City Council have approached this issue and hope they can develop a much stronger collaboration culture ASAP before they further alienate the small business owners that make this city somewhere we all want to live.

Moving business

This proposal is focused on restaurant and service industry jobs. But you are applying it to all employers in the city. I started a residential construction company a few months ago, and this ridiculous mess would keep me from hiring anyone. I don't do a 9 to 5 desk job, or abuse waitstaff. I sure as hell dont have a schedule 28 days out yet, not could I in this field. Weather, customer needs, late deliveries, delays, these things happen in this field. And you want for a business like mine, just starting up, to pay penalties every time we have to stay late or finish early in a day? You people are nuts. What about when your furnace goes out at 3 am this winter? Or scheduling snow removal crews? Extra police force for the riots when another kid gets shot by a cop?

It's like mandating that because the zoo is feeding the tigers garbage, the lawmakers get together and write up a rule saying all animals must be fed steak in the city of minneapolis. Then people have to drop a t bone in their fish tank. I would bet this was written in part by bigger companies to stifle competition, and more than likely bribing the hell out of any politician they can get in their pocket.

Even if this doesn't pass, I can't trust that something even more stupid won't come down the line from this group of clowns, mayor, city. So before I get too invested into having my business located in this city, I am moving, and all of you can have fun with this.