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‘Listening session’ prompts an earful about mandatory paid leave proposal in Minneapolis

The possibility of the city requiring all employers to allow workers to accumulate paid time off is being greeted with apprehension by small business owners.  

Discussants during Thursday night's meeting, from left to right: Shannon Leach, general manager Izzy's ice cream; Stephanie Covart Meyerring, co-owner of Electric Fetus; Liz Doyle, chair of Workplace Partnership Group; Jim Welna, co-owner of Welna Hardware; and KB Brown, owner of Wolfpack Promotionals.
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan

Supporters of the batch of workplace proposals that began life as Mayor Betsy Hodges’ Working Families Agenda figured removing the most-controversial proposal would reduce opposition to what remained.

In October, intense opposition from small businesses caused the city council to table a controversial scheduling provision. What was left of that once-ambitious agenda — mandatory paid sick leave for all employees — was handed off to a task force charged with presenting a proposal by the end of February.

But while setting aside the scheduling provision may have lessened the loudest and most-emotional opposition, complaints remain. As the Workplace Partnership Group begins a series of what members are calling “listening sessions” — including Thursday’s, aimed at small business — there remains suspicion, confusion and apprehension over any proposal that requires all employers to allow workers to accumulate sick leave or personal time off.

Interest in the issue is still high, however, as shown by the packed theater room during the midday meeting at Bryant Lake Bowl.

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Jim Welna, who owns two hardware stores with his brother, asked the work group members to recognize the difference between small businesses with a lot of hourly workers and larger businesses with salaried employees. He said most existing workers in Minneapolis with paid sick leave fall into the salaried category. “Most of those workers are in positions that if they’re not there that day the work can wait,” Welna said. “Many of us in this room are in businesses where if the person is not there, somebody else has to step in to do that.”

Other owners described their employees as being like family and objected to the city inserted itself in that relationship. Stephanie Covart Meyerring, who co-owns the Electric Fetus, said she offers paid sick leave and vacation to some of the employees.

“We are so unique in what we offer our employees which is why they want to be employed with us,” she said, in urging the city to allow flexibility in any ordinance. “If someone were to call in sick, we work with everyone because we are part of a family. Our company isn’t just employing people, we are employing our families.”

KB Brown owns a very small business — it has one employee — called Wolfpack Promotionals. He said he sees the need for paid sick leave as a way to protect workers from being pressured to work while sick or being fired for not working. Brown said he once managed a Chipotle restaurant and wouldn’t let workers come in sick, but that they were sometimes fired for missing too much work even though it was unpaid.

But Brown said any ordinance should provide employers with protections to prevent workers from abusing the benefit.

Dick Henke, who has owned the Malt Shop restaurant on 50th Street for 40 years, said he didn’t think the city should mandate paid sick leave.

“We’ve crafted policies for our business that fit our business,” Henke said. “We rely on our employees. We have to take care of them. If we don’t take care of them, we don’t have them.” Henke also said the ordinance would create a cost that would require an increase in prices.

“Our employees are not asking for this,” Henke said. “Most people are happy with small business environments managed by people who care about the business and care about their employees and I have a real problem with the city getting involved in more labor laws that we have to adapt our businesses to.”

Although the work group members were supposed to be listening, a few offered comments. Brian Elliott, a group member who serves as the executive director of the SEIU state council, said that while ordinances from other cities are being used to start discussions, no decisions about the makeup of a Minneapolis ordinance have been made.

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And Chris Pennock, representing workers, said that while most of the owners in the room treat their employees well, others in the city do not. “I would urge people to remember that not all employer-employee relationships in the city are as good as what you guys have,” Pennock said.

Work group member Molly Glasgow was able to direct the conversation into specifics. Shannon Leach, the general manager of Izzy’s Ice Cream, said it should consider businesses that hire a lot of young people. A woman who owns a hair salon said she has both employees and contractors who rent chairs in her shop. Restaurant owner Molly Broder said she thinks a policy should require workers to be at a job for at least six months before being able to take paid leave. Leach, who is also an actor, wondered how a paid leave policy could be applied to arts groups. Brown wanted a cap on the number of hours an employee could accrue. Welna suggested being able to buy out an employee’s unused leave at year end as an incentive for workers to use it only when necessary. Bookseller Mary Magers said businesses like hers that compete with big stores as well as Amazon have little room to raise prices.

“Which means we’ll have to sell a heck of a lot more books than we do now,” she said, taking the opportunity to say that those politicians and others who support the paid leave ordinance need to also shop local.

Welna even suggested an incentive-based program, which he compared to LEED certification for environmentally sustainable buildings. Businesses with good benefits could be designated a gold standard employer and could display that designation.

And several business owners questioned why the city appeared to be rushing the work of the task force, which is charged with conducting sessions and public hearings, deliberating the policy, and agreeing on a recommendation — all by the end of February.

Not all of those who spoke were opposed to a paid-leave ordinance. Several who spoke in support are members of the Main Street Alliance of Minnesota, an affiliate of a national organization that supports progressive issues such as higher minimum wages, health care and leave. The local group has proposed what it terms “a modest floor” for sick leave accrual of one hour for each 30 hours of paid work. The alliance proposed that any employer with an existing paid time off policy would be deemed to be in compliance as long as the policy met the one-hour-every-30-days minimum.

Earlier in the week, the alliance had a conference call with small business owners in other states and cities that currently have paid-leave laws in place. Shaun Sieren, who owns a nightclub in Portland, said the leave law there has caused little disruption to his business. “Employees only use it when they really need it,” Sieren said. That was echoed by Dan Stenton-Klatt, who owns Butter Bakery Cafe in Minneapolis. When he gave paid sick leave to his 20 employees, only five sick days were used in the first six months after the policy was implemented.  

The alliance, in conjunction with the National Partnership for Women & Families, also released a compilation of studies on leave policies. One, conducted by the University of Washington for the Seattle city auditor, found that 70 percent of businesses supported the leave ordinance a year after it took effect.

The work group is engaging in a somewhat unusual method of taking public testimony. Each of the listening sessions is organized by different members of the task force and focuses on the groups that are represented by that member. For example, Glasgow was appointed to a slot set aside for small business owners, so she organized the small business listening session. Four business owners were selected to be on stage as “discussants,” but anyone in the room was allowed to comment or ask questions.

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Watching Thursday were other members of the sick leave work group who will report back to the council with a proposal for a sick-leave policy in the city. While the group could recommend no formal ordinance, that is unlikely given the makeup of the group and the charge from the council.

Also attending the meeting: four members of the council, which will have to take the report and decide whether to become the 27th political jurisdiction in the country — mostly cities — to adopt a local leave mandate.