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Our View: Heed front-line sick-safe advice

He's been through it, what we here in Duluth are going through and soon could be going through with regard to workplace mandates and how — or, first, whether — they should be written into our local laws.

St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman has experiences from his city worth considering and advice worth heeding.

First, he said in an interview this week with News Tribune Editorial Board members, understand where the issues are coming from.

"You have to have as big a table for the conversations as you can," he said. "You can't take those conversations about earned safe and sick or minimum wage or the fight for (a $15 minimum wage) or any of those things, you can't really talk about those, without giving the context of the economic insecurity people are feeling, this divide, the increasing wealth gap in this country. ... When you look at the last 40-plus years, where the average CEO's salary has gone up 1,000 percent and the average worker's has only gone up 11 percent ... that economic disparity is what's fueling a lot of these conversations. ...

"And unless somebody has a better way to figure out how to lift people's standard of living and security, I think you're going to continue to see these kinds of things coming at us," Coleman continued.

The marketplace, he said, often and appropriately will dictate working conditions and benefits. But not always.

"In the normal course of things, when there are normal negotiations and give and take in an employment situation, government doesn't have to step in. Government has to step in when things get so out of proportion that they're no longer fair and equitable. And I think right now we're getting to that point where families are really struggling and that impacts then what happens in our school system and that then impacts what happens in our communities," Coleman said. "Government has always stepped in. The whole minimum wage, you know? Safety rules. And the whole argument back in (author) Upton Sinclair's day was, 'Well, what role does government have coming into a meat-processing plant in Chicago? That's not their business.' It wouldn't be if things were normalized. But when things get so extreme, government has to step in sometimes."

The Duluth City Council-appointed Earned Sick and Safe Time Task Force surely won't try to argue that working conditions in Duluth today are anywhere near as unsafe or as unfair to workers as they were in early-1900s Chicago. But when presenting their recommendations for an earned-sick-and-safe-time ordinance in Duluth on Monday, task force members will still need to demonstrate that government intervention is truly necessary here, that conditions are really that bad.

But bad enough to justify the burden of an earned-sick-and-safe-time ordinance on a business community already absorbing a 31 percent water rate increase, a 9 percent electric rate increase, property revaluations that drove up property taxes by as much as 30 percent, and the coming possibility of a half-percent sales tax for streets as well as the unknown costs of reconstructing Superior Street and of converting the Duluth Steam Plant?

"Death by a thousand cuts" was how Coleman put it.

Also a gubernatorial candidate, he further said the state and federal governments can do more and be better partners with local leaders.

"These things (earned sick and safe time, smoking bans, etc.) are happening on a city-by-city basis because of the complete inaction on the state and federal levels," he said. "People are frustrated."

So local leaders are acting — sometimes even when situations don't justify it.

Disclaimer: News Tribune Editorial Board member Terese Tomanek is also on the Duluth City Council-appointed Earned Sick and Safe Time Task Force. While she participated in the interview with St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman, to avoid a conflict of interest she abstained from the deliberations that determined the views in this editorial.