The Duluth City Council hit pause Monday night on a proposed ordinance that would require local employers to provide their workers with paid time off benefits to deal with illnesses and other family crises.
In all, four councilors offered five different amendments during what was to be the first reading of the ordinance. But with so many ideas being bandied about, the council chose to table the ordinance to allow for further discussion.
Councilors reached that decision after hearing 13 people argue on different sides of the divisive issue.
David Ross, president and CEO of the Duluth Area Chamber of Commerce, said local businesses have actively participated in the public discussion leading to the creation of the proposed ordinance, sharing many of their concerns.
"Yet it appears that you are poised to disregard our work and our appeals and our logic. Your disregard for our concern is difficult to witness and challenging to accept. We asked for your support. You responded with indifference," he said.
While some said the ordinance would go too far, others said it didn't go far enough.
"Unfortunately, if this ordinance passes, as is, without any amended language or even with some of the amended language in the queue, it would be one of the weakest ordinances in the entire nation," said Katie Humphrey, calling the proposal "an embarrassment."
But Sean Stefan, controller for the Black Woods Grill & Bar Group, warned the proposed ordinance would force businesses to make difficult decisions.
As proposed, he said the city's earned sick and safe time policy would cost Black Woods at least another $108,000 annually. "As a numbers guy, I can say: Positions will be cut. Investments and growth reduced. Prices will go up. Blah, blah, blah," Stefan said.
Offering a different perspective, Christine St. Germaine said: "When I was 19 years old, I worked a minimum wage job with no benefits. I was 12 weeks pregnant. I was having difficulties. And my doctor ordered me to stay home."
But St. Germaine said she couldn't afford to go without pay. She talked to her employer who adjusted her duties, allowing her to work mostly from a seated position.
"Well, I finished out the rest of the week. On Saturday, I had a miscarriage. Maybe things would have been different if I would have been able to stay home sick and my employer provided that benefit to me. But that was not the case," St. Germaine said.
That was 31 years ago, but she said little has changed for many workers in Duluth.
Several councilors said they wanted more time to work on the ordinance to make sure it would provide a balanced solution.
But 5th District Councilor Jay Fosle remained critical of the whole idea of mandating new employee benefits, warning that it could shrink the city's tax base if it proved detrimental to business.
He also suggested people need to take responsibility for their own actions and not depend on employers as a default.
"People make choices in life. If you got pregnant at 19, you did that on your own," he said. "You made those choices. That's what life is. Life is a choice."
Fosle's parting comment elicited a few jeers from the crowd and some stern words from 1st District Councilor Gary Anderson, who said: "I find it deeply offensive that a councilor, a colleague, would make a judgment and call out that judgment from these council seats to a member of the public in the way that was just done."