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Our View: Council can avoid pricey legal entanglements

A new city law requiring businesses in Duluth to provide paid sick days is likely a foregone conclusion. With commitments of support from enough city councilors, the ordinance is expected to cruise to passage, a several-meetings process that can begin Monday night with the receipt of Earned Sick and Safe Time Task Force recommendations. The support is even though the mandate could apply even to interns and temporary workers and could do bottom-line harm to local businesses, especially smaller ones.

The ordinance also could pretty well mirror one approved last year in Minneapolis that has been tied up in expensive legal challenges. With the city of Duluth already facing a proposed $2.1 million in budget cuts for 2018, taxpaying residents could expect their elected councilors to do all that's possible to avoid becoming embroiled in new expenses. Running headfirst into a pricey legal entanglement certainly could be avoided.

And just what's expected to follow the so-called earned-sick-and-safe-time ordinance? A local minimum wage law appears to be on its heels. It's another matter that was approved in Minneapolis, that takes aim at businesses, and that's now in a lengthy and expensive legal challenge — with Minneapolis' meter already running.

No, no one on the Duluth City Council has proposed yet to raise the minimum wage here. But Greater Downtown Council President Kristi Stokes said in an October interview with News Tribune Editorial Board members that there is "talk about a possible minimum-wage increase" for Duluth. So it would appear a groundswell is already forming out there. With gaining organization, it could rise the same way earned sick and safe time became a cry for a vocal few.

The Minnesota Chamber of Commerce filed a lawsuit in Hennepin County District Court on Friday in opposition to Minneapolis' minimum-wage ordinance.

"The state has set the minimum wage in Minnesota, and a city does not have the power to set a different minimum wage," Cam Winton, the chamber's director of labor management policy, argued, according to reporting by the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

Will Duluth stay out of the minimum wage foray? Was our elected council ever even critical of earned sick and safe time? Much of the conversation over the last year seemed centered on what to enact rather than whether an ordinance was really needed or whether there was even a problem severe enough to justify government intervention.

Along the way, Duluth's business community unfairly took a hit as uncaring to workers. Who knows the damage such a reputation could do to Duluth's ability to attract new industry and tax base-expanding economic development.

Yes, employees deserve the ability to earned paid days off to use when they're ill, when a family member is ill, or when they have to deal with an emergency related to their safety or the safety of loved ones. Good working conditions can be the expectation.

But unless workplace abuses are occurring or inhumane conditions are identified — not the situation in Duluth — workplace benefits are most appropriately negotiated between employers and employees.

Calling on the government to intervene when those negotiations don't produce what's wanted can quickly lead to inappropriate government overreach. That can be avoided, especially when the likely result is expensive-to-taxpayers legal entanglements.

Disclaimer: News Tribune Editorial Board Citizen Representative Terese Tomanek is also a member of the City Council-appointed Earned Sick and Safe Time Task Force. To avoid a conflict of interest, she abstained from determining the views in this editorial.