Between the time a bill dealing with local labor laws was heard in a Minnesota Senate committee and when the proposal appeared in a large omnibus bill, a small change was made that could make a huge difference in its impact.
By changing a single date, from “2019” in the original bill to “2017” in the omnibus bill, the GOP-led Senate would cancel ordinances passed in Minneapolis and St. Paul to gradually increase the minimum wage to $15 an hour. The same language would preempt ordinances passed in those cities, as well as Duluth, that requires employers to let workers accumulate paid sick leave.
The date was the only change from when the original bill, SF 2321 — the Uniform State Labor Standards Act — was heard by and passed by the Senate’s Local Government Committee on March 13 and when it was incorporated into the large Jobs and Economic Growth omnibus bill drafted by the Senate Jobs and Economic Growth committee.
The original language of the bill noted: “This section is effective upon final enactment and applies to ordinances, local policies, and local resolutions enacted on or after January 1, 2019.”
The reason that date is so important: It was 2017 and 2018 when Minneapolis, St. Paul and Duluth adopted their ordinances to provide benefits to workers that exceed those required by the state. The state has a lower minimum wage adopted in 2014 but has no statewide statutory demand that workers be allowed to accumulate sick leave.
While there was testimony against the original bill in the Local Government Committee, none came from officials from the three cities. That was because the prime sponsor, Sen. Mark Koran, R-North Branch, had said the measure wouldn’t cancel out the existing ordinances. Instead, it would apply only to cities that adopt similar regulation in the future. That made the hearing more philosophical than practical, with supporters and opponents arguing about the concept of local control versus statewide standards.
But Sen. Eric Pratt, the Prior Lake Republican who chairs the Senate Jobs and Economic Growth committee, which put together the Jobs and Economic Growth omnibus bill, said he wanted the existing ordinances to be addressed in the larger bill, since it is important to have uniform labor standards across the state, especially for employers who do work in multiple cities. “This is about having uniform labor standards across the state,” Pratt said.
DFL elected officials argue that the state wage standard is the floor — the minimum — and that cities should be able exceed that if they want. But Pratt has a very different view. “I believe the state is the standard,” he said. “We’re not the floor; we’re not the ceiling; we’re the standard.”
“When we start talking about wage theft and safe and sick time and paid family medical leave, if the state is the floor you could have businesses having to comply with over 800 different rules and regulations depending on where their employee is,” he said. “As we were pulling it into our bill, it seemed appropriate that we make it retroactive to prior to when Minneapolis implemented their first labor ordinance.”
While some Republicans and some lawyers for businesses who challenged the Minneapolis wage ordinance in court thought the state already preempts local action, the state court of appeals disagreed, and in March it upheld the law. The Senate bill language states specifically that the state of Minnesota — and not local governments — has sole domain over labor standards.
Pratt takes issue with suggestions that he snuck the preemption language into his omnibus bill, saying that he briefed the DFL members of the committee on that and other changes ahead of time. It was also discussed in open committee before it was approved — and again when the bill was presented to the Senate Finance Committee. In fact, the existence of the preemption was one of the reasons Sen. Chris Eaton, DFL-Center, said she voted no.
“We had a good conversation when it went into the omnibus bill,” Pratt said. There was additional testimony and DFLers offered amendments to strip it out. “I didn’t want this to be me trying to sneak something in.”
“Rather than seeking preemption and trying to micro-manage local government, especially the urban core like Minneapolis and St. Paul, maybe the state could spend its energy on a statewide effort,” she said. “It seems funny to try to roll backward rather than take what we’re doing and move it forward to the state level.”
Brendmoen said she would have testified on the issue had she known it was attempting to cancel out the St. Paul ordinances. “This has been a huge priority for Mayor [Melvin] Carter. I know it has been a huge priority for Council President [Lisa] Bender and Mayor [Jacob] Frey in Minneapolis. I am sure there would have been loud voices testifying, not only from the city government but from the advocates who worked hard to create these ordinances.”
While Pratt said he hopes the language will be acceptable to House DFL leaders and Gov. Tim Walz, the chair of the House Jobs and Economic Development Committee said that will not happen. “It’s obviously a negotiating ploy, some kind of a what-can-I-trade-for,” said Rep. Tim Mahoney, DFL-St. Paul. “As far as I’m concerned, it’s not coming back to this House.”
“The states are the laboratories of the national government and the cities are the laboratories of the state government,” Mahoney continued. “I don’t understand what the Republican caucus has against laboratory experiments unless they are against science.”
Taking issues like minimum wage to the local level has become a central tenet of local and national Democrats. It was seen as a way to overcome opposition to higher wages at the federal and state levels. Dozens of cities, counties and a few states have adopted something akin to $15 Now ordinances. A New York Times article this week said that U.S. workers on average have the highest minimum wage in history because of the drive for local ordinances.
At the very beginning of session, House Speaker Melissa Hortman was asked at a Minnesota Chamber of Commerce dinner whether she favored increasing pay and benefit requirements for workers. While she said her DFL caucus would introduce a paid family leave insurance plan, local governments have been doing the work that the state has not. “Cities have been leading because the state has not been leading; and that has pushed the issue forward,” the Brooklyn Park lawmaker said.
“Cities need to be allowed to innovate,” Hortman continued, citing as an example public smoking bans that began in cities. “We learned that it could be good for our local economies by seeing counties and cities take leadership first.”