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Duluth creates position to launch, enforce controversial time-off policy

Duluth is looking to hire a compliance officer to oversee a new highly debated employment policy that's slated to take effect on Jan. 1, 2020, despite continued misgivings in parts of the local business community.

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Duluth is looking to hire a compliance officer to oversee a new highly debated employment policy that's slated to take effect on Jan. 1, 2020, despite continued misgivings in parts of the local business community.

On Monday, the Duluth City Council authorized the creation of the new position, and City Clerk Chelsea Helmer said she hopes to bring someone aboard by April - providing nine months of lead time before Duluth's new earned-sick-and-safe-time rules kick in.

Mayor Emily Larson said it only made sense to budget for the new position this year. The job is expected to pay between $62,232 and $79,920 per year, plus benefits.

"It was a pretty simple decision, because this is a significant undertaking. It was an issue that really required a lot of discussion, a lot of debate, a lot of discernment, and it's time to implement it and get it right," she said.

But Rob Stenberg, president of Duluth BizPAC, a recently formed business-oriented political action committee, predicts the cost of the new compliance officer position is just the beginning of the bill the city will foot for adopting an ordinance that will require local employers with five or more employees to provide them with paid time off that can be used to deal with an illness or a family emergency.


"I don't even think the City Council or the mayor fully understand what the costs are for this - not only from a monetary standpoint for the salary and benefits of this one position, which I don't think is going to be enough to cover what needs to be done in order to educate all the businesses in town," Stenberg said.

However, At Large Duluth City Councilor Zack Filipovich believes the city is well positioned to enact the new policy in 2020 and said: "I think the long lead time, the very public discussion and the open process that we had with the task force really helped educate folks. At some points that process was contentious, but that's to be expected with an issue like this. I think we ended up in a good place."

Stenberg disagreed, saying, "Most of the businesses in town and most of the employees of those businesses have no idea how earned sick and safe time is going to affect them. So, it's going to be very, very difficult."

Filipovich contends the new compliance officer position should go a long way toward helping businesses prepare.

"I think this is a very smart investment. This person will be a resource to businesses, especially our local small businesses, to help them know what the requirements of the new ordinance are, to help them with reporting and all that, and to make sure they are ready for its full implementation," he said.

Helmer said she reached out to Minneapolis and St. Paul - two cities that adopted similar work requirements a couple years ago.

"We had a very in-depth discussion about how they implemented the ordinance, how they were handling compliance, what outreach they did, what were things that worked really well for them and what things didn't work well for them," she said.

It definitely informed how we are implementing our administration, because we have the benefit in a way of learning from those two cities," she said.


"We have the benefit of doing our outreach and engagement in the community before the effective date of the ordinance, and in both Minneapolis' and St. Paul's case, they didn't necessarily have that benefit of the same kind of time," said Helmer, noting that one of the primary duties of the new compliance officer position will be to educate and assist employers in the months to come.

"Businesses should not be surprised this is coming, and they'll have time to prepare themselves and do any necessary front-end work," Filipovich said.

Yet anxiety persists in parts of the local business community, including the leadership of the Duluth Area Chamber of Commerce, which unsuccessfully fought to fend off the mandate.

David Ross, the chamber's president and CEO, lamented the cost of the policy, saying: "One of our many questions for councilors was: 'Who is going to pay for the enactment and enforcement of this burden upon employers?' Their answer was they will figure it out later. Well, it appears they have figured it out.

"They will soon add to the city payroll what will be a full-time administrative position. This additional staffing expense comes at a time when our beloved city of Duluth is struggling mightily to pay for basic city service employees, such as our courageous firefighters, brave police officers and our hardworking snowplow drivers," Ross said.

"To add insult to injury, the same businesses which will incur additional payroll expenses associated with the ordinance will also pay more city taxes for the enforcement of the ordinance," he said. "It's doubling up on the pain and suffering."

Nevertheless, Ross noted that chamber members are "resilient and resourceful" and said: "Somehow we will find a way to make this work."

Peter Passi covers city government for the Duluth News Tribune. He joined the paper in April 2000, initially as a business reporter but has worked a number of beats through the years.
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