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Task force chairwomen's view: Duluth workers need paid sick, safe days

Should I stay by my child's hospital bed as she goes into surgery or go to work to keep my job? Should I call in sick because I have the superbug MRSA and then not be able to pay my rent or do I go to work and expose patients? Do I need to tell my boss that I was attacked by my spouse last night to get time off so I can talk to the police and get a restraining order?

How does my business provide paid time off and remain profitable? How does our business cover for a sick employee and still make my 3 percent profit margin when we will have to pay someone else overtime to cover that shift? Can we increase the amount we allocate for staff costs in our next grant application and still receive the grant to provide necessary services?

These are the questions faced by employers and employees every day in Duluth. With our state and federal government unwilling to tackle these issues, the Duluth City Council created the Earned Sick and Safe Time Task Force to study whether it was appropriate for Duluth do so. The task force was comprised of a wide variety of people representing large companies, the hospitality industry, the health care industry, nonprofits, unions, small businesses, and government workers. We were proud to co-chair the task force.

Over the last year, the task force reviewed and studied what other communities are doing. We tracked litigation surrounding these issues, especially in the Twin Cities. Over 35 cities, counties, and states now require employers to provide paid sick-and-safe time to employees. In Arizona, the question was put on the November 2016 ballot and won by a large margin.

Approximately 46 percent of the Duluth workforce is without access to sick-or-safe leave, primarily part-time workers. Most employers provide some form of sick-or-safe leave for their full-time employees. Whether the employee is a college student trying to pay rent or a single parent dealing with a child with the flu, sickness and domestic violence don't only affect those with full-time employment.

The task force listened to Duluthians. Both employers and employees expressed concern about coming forward with their stories and concerns, and many provided us important information. We conducted two surveys and held 12 listening sessions. We heard from employees who struggled to pay bills when they or a family member got sick. Thoughtful employers came forward who wanted to do right by their employees but expressed concern over the cost of any required paid time off for sick-or-safe reasons.

We also heard from employers who already provide paid sick-or-safe time. They shared with us what worked and its impact on their businesses. Northern Waters Restaurant, for example, noted that the cost of this policy for their business was less than $8,000 last year. Most of their employees did not use all or even most of their leave. They also have a low turnover rate.

Our discussions were passionate and civil. The task force provided the City Council with two recommendations. Both included that the City Council should adopt an ordinance requiring employers with a physical location in Duluth and five or more employees to provide paid sick-and-safe time to all employees. The majority of the task force recommended that leave time be accrued at one hour earned for every 30 hours worked. For a full-time employee, that would equate to approximately eight days of paid sick-or-safe time each year. Importantly, the task force also recommended that employers who already provide substantially similar benefits be exempt from the ordinance.

Minnesota law already provides that for those employers who already provide paid sick leave it be allowed to be used for safe time and for the care of sick family members. Survivors of domestic abuse and sexual assault often need to miss work to work with the police, go to court hearings, or tend to their physical and emotional injuries. We heard from advocates and survivors alike about the revictimization that occurs when the survivor must explain the reason needed for time away from work. That's why the task force unanimously recommended that no additional documentation be required for time off under any ordinance, except as other existing laws already require.

In recognition of the costs and administrative needs created by such an ordinance, the task force also recommended that employers be given 18 months to prepare for this ordinance. This was a direct result of employer feedback at our listening sessions.

Ultimately, it is for the City Council to decide to enact an ordinance and what that ordinance includes. We invite the public to review our recommendations in full at duluthmn.gov/media/542930/esst-report-final-recommendations.pdf.

Angie Miller

Laura WeintraubAngie Miller is executive director of Community Action Duluth. Laura Weintraub is CEO of Aimclear, a marketing agency in Duluth. They served as co-chairwomen of the Duluth Earned Sick and Safe Time Task Force.

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