After lengthy public testimony followed by prolonged discussion, the Duluth City Council voted 8-1 Monday night to appoint a task force to recommend how the city can go about providing paid safe and sick time to local workers.
"I don't think anyone should have to choose between going to work sick and getting a paycheck," said Council President Zack Filipovich.
A proposed amendment offered by Councilors Joel Sipress and Em Westerlund stating the council's support for providing earned safe and sick time to all workers in Duluth failed by a narrow 5-4 vote, but a less-binding amendment offered by Councilors Noah Hobbs and Barb Russ garnered sufficient support for passage.
Hobbs said the amendment offers direction to the task force.
"We're looking at how we would implement a paid sick and safe time policy, without putting the cart before the horse," he said.
In calling for an even more explicit statement of support, Sipress said: "As far as I'm concerned, earned safe and sick time is a basic human right."
Sipress said he wishes the state or federal governments would provide leadership on the issue but commented that those levels of government are too dysfunctional to tackle the matter. "So I think we're compelled to act at the local level," he said.
In speaking for their failed amendment, Westerlund said: "My hope with this resolution is that it will provide a commitment to tangible solutions."
Councilor Jay Fosle cast the sole vote against the resolution, as amended by Hobbs and Russ. He remarked that he had recently seen a list of delinquent taxpayers that included many local businesses and wondered aloud what the unintended consequences of requiring struggling enterprises to provide another benefit to workers might be.
Fosle also questioned if it was truly appropriate for the city of Duluth to mandate benefits, suggesting that it would be more appropriate to have such policies established at a state or federal level.
An 11-member community task force, containing representatives of various businesses and workers will have up to one year to make recommendations to the Duluth City Council.
Some Councilors, including Russ, suggested speeding up that timeline, but At Large Councilor Elissa Hansen, who crafted the original resolution, defended allowing the task force a full year to study the weighty matter and provide a recommendation that fits the needs of Duluth.
Westerlund noted that 46 percent of workers in Duluth lack access to earned sick or safe time.
"St. Louis County is dead last in the state for providing earned safe and sick time," she said.
Several community members testified about the challenge of having to decide between caring for an ill family member or losing a job.
Domestic violence advocates spoke about assaulted individuals who were further traumatized by employers who did not provide time off to seek protection from a threatening partner.
But David Ross, president and CEO of the Duluth Area Chamber of Commerce, warned that requiring local businesses to provide earned safe and sick time benefits could place them at a competitive disadvantage to out-of-town businesses.
Sipress said he remains optimistic but unsure of exactly what to expect of the task force.
"We've had task forces that have been successful. We've also had task forces that have been bogged down and paralyzed. This could go in either direction," he said.
But Sipress stressed the importance of the task force's mission and called on fellow councilors to keep the body on track.
"Failure is not an option, because people's lives depend on the positive outcome of this process," he said.