Update: This story has been updated to reflect actions at the St. Paul Council meeting Wednesday afternoon.
St. Paul will become the second city in Minnesota to require private employers to provide paid leave to workers. Not Wednesday, as expected and hoped for by backers. But in two weeks when the council next meets.
A positive vote of the City Council is expected. City Council Member Amy Brendmoen noted last week, the ordinance has six sponsors among the seven-member council.
“I can’t promise you it’s going to pass … but I’m pretty sure it is,” she said. The vote – delayed because an amendment was needed Wednesday to clarify the ordinance – will follow the late-May passage of a similar, though not identical, ordinance by the Minneapolis City Council.
In both cities, workers will begin accruing paid leave time with their first hour of work at a rate of one hour of leave for each 30 hours worked; workers won’t be able to take paid leave until they have worked for 90 days, making a summertime employee unlikely to benefit; workers can accumulate up to 48 hours in a year and can roll over unused time to the next year, though the ordinance caps total accrual at 80 hours.
Leave can be taken by a worker for mental or physical illness or for medical appointments; leave can be taken to care for a child or other family member; and provisions are made for domestic abuse victims to use paid leave for medical treatment and to get help from victim-services organizations.
Both cities also permit employers to require documentation when paid leave is used for more than three consecutive days.
As written, the two ordinances cover workers who work within city limits whether the employer is physically located there or not. The owner of a delivery service or repair service, for example, would have to calculate the hours that the employee is within each city and use those hours to calculate the paid leave accrued.
St. Paul Chamber of Commerce President Matt Kramer, who served as co-chair of the city’s paid leave work group, does not favor cities going it alone on worker benefits. But if they do, they should at least have the same rules, he said.
And there are some differences. Minneapolis, for example, exempts workplaces with five or fewer employees while St. Paul does not. That, Kramer said, would put the city’s smallest employers at a competitive disadvantage with similar workplaces in Minneapolis.
St. Paul also created a right for employees to file suit against an employer if they feel they have been retaliated against for complaining to the city about violations of the ordinance. Minneapolis has no such “private right of action.”
The two cities also treat so-called casual workers differently. Minneapolis has some exemptions for workers who work on-call or who have the ability to accept or not accept hours, such as some nurses. St. Paul does not exempt any casual workers from the ordinance’s provisions.
Kramer called on the council to support a statewide response to the issue so that the same rules would apply to all employers in the state. A failure by the state Legislature to act on issues such as paid leave is what turned the attention of activists toward local governments, however, and though DFL lawmakers introduced bills in the last session of the Legislature, they did not make significant progress in either house.
As in Minneapolis, supporters are led by labor and worker rights groups as well as the Main Street Alliance of Minnesota, the local affiliate of a national group that organizes small-business support for enhanced employee benefits such as paid leave and higher minimum wages. Analyses of census data suggests that more than 40 percent of workers in St. Paul do not have paid leave, with women and minority workers more likely to be in jobs without that benefit.
“Obviously no one wants people preparing their food to be sick, and I don’t want workers to choose between coming to work sick and hiding that from me or losing their car or their homes or not being able to pay rent,” Eric Foster, who owns the Ward 6 restaurant in St. Paul and who also served on the task force told the council. “On balance this is a good thing to do for business because it is the right thing to do, and because it will have benefits to business.”
Retired Ramsey County Judge Mary Louise Klas said she handled hundreds of domestic abuse cases while on the bench and said there are reasons why victims have difficulty leaving those relationships. Having paid leave while they are trying to deal with their situations is important. “Leaving is the most dangerous time because that’s when killings occur,” Klas said in her testimony.
Opposing the paid leave rules are the chamber, the state retail association and numerous small business owners. Many who testified at the public hearing on the ordinance last week were members of the Grand Avenue Business Association, which recently fought city hall over a proposal to place parking meters on the popular shopping and dining street.
Michael Schumann owns three Traditions Classic Home Furnishings stores, including one on Grand Avenue. He said he surveyed employers on the street and all have formal or informal sick leave policies. But he said he did not want rules imposed by the city. “Last year it was parking meters on Grand Avenue; now we have this proposal,” Schumann said. “This is absolutely the death knell for small business.”
Other business owners said they have already begun to reduce worker hours and reduce jobs in anticipation of the ordinance passing.
As in Minneapolis, elected officials had lined up behind the change even before task forces dug into the details. An ordinance creating a public process in St. Paul had the same six sponsors expected to vote for the ordinance and the measure has been endorsed by Mayor Chris Coleman. The city has pledged to begin providing paid leave to about 1,000 temporary workers and 700 Right Track interns by next year. Full- and part-time workers already have that benefit.
Brendmoen said of the coming council vote: “… it’s historic, it’s important, it’s momentous.”
Council Member Rebecca Noecker said testimony that the city is unfriendly to business hurt her and that she will work on other measures to ease the burdens on businesses. “But I don’t want St. Paul to be a great place to do business because you can do it on the backs of workers,” she said.
Council Member Chris Tolbert said the council tried to adopt a measure that had the least impact on business, but called that task “a hard needle to thread.”
“I know it does add burdens to business,” Tolbert said. “I’m not glossing over that. We accept that. But we as policy makers are OK with that,” adding that he thinks the ordinance is fair and balanced. He said this week that while he has tried to line up the two ordinances, there will be differences. The one that will have the most impact is the lack of exemption for very small businesses, he said.
“But this is a public health thing,” Tolbert said in an interview. “It doesn’t matter if you work at a small business or a large business, at a hospital or a small college. If you get sick, you shouldn’t go to work.”
If passed, the St. Paul ordinance will kick in on July 1, 2017, for workplaces with 24 or more workers and on Jan. 1, 2018, for those with 23 workers or fewer. The Minneapolis ordinance takes effect for all-sized workplaces on July 1, 2017.