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Duluth to require paid time off

People listen to Duluth city councilors make remarks before voting on the earned sick and safe time ordinance Tuesday evening at City Hall. The measure passed 7-1. (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)1 / 3
Duluth City Councilor Noah Hobbs makes remarks before voting on the earned sick and safe time ordinance Tuesday evening at City Hall. The measure passed 7-1. (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)2 / 3
Duluth City Councilor Zack Filipovich makes remarks before voting on the earned sick and safe time ordinance Tuesday evening at City Hall. The measure passed 7-1. (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)3 / 3

The Duluth City Council voted Tuesday night to approve an earned sick and safe time ordinance that was months in the making.

By an 7-1 vote — with 5th District Councilor Jay Fosle dissenting and At Large Councilor Barb Russ absent — the council adopted new rules that would require employers doing business in Duluth to provide their workers with access to paid time off to deal with an illness or a family emergency, such as a case of domestic abuse.

Some who voted for the ordinance nevertheless expressed disappointment that the adopted policy doesn't go far enough.

Third District Councilor Em Westerlund said she would have preferred a stronger ordinance, along the lines of what a task force had recommended in November of 2017, after nine months of gathering community input.

"I firmly believe that all working people deserve the dignity of paid sick time as an earned benefit. It's not a giveaway or a freebie," she said.

At Large Councilor Noah Hobbs acknowledged that the process that led to Tuesday's vote had at times seemed drawn out.

"I think that everybody is fatigued on this issue, and at times it has been divisive. But I think we have landed at a place that allows us to move forward," he said, noting that the final ordinance strikes a balance between business concerns and the needs of workers.

"It does provide for our workforce in a way that is uniquely Duluth," Hobbs said.

Fosle, a longtime critic of the idea of a city-mandated sick time benefit, said: "I really hope this doesn't hurt any businesses once implemented, because nothing I say here tonight is going to change anybody's mind."

The ordinance, which will take effect Jan. 1, 2020, would apply to businesses or organizations with five or more employees in Duluth. Workers would earn at least one hour of paid time off for every 50 hours on the job. They would be able to bank up to 40 hours of time off in a year and carry an unused balance into the next year.

The accrual rate is far more modest than the task force's proposal of one hour off for every 30 hours worked.

David Ross, president and CEO of the Duluth Area Chamber of Commerce, thanked the council for listening and responding to local business' concerns about the ordinance.

"I leave the conversation with great respect for each of you and for your willingness to hear our views on this important initiative. And I am hopeful that, whatever your decision is tonight, that we can move forward as a unified force to bring about the most good for our community. And know that you have the chamber's commitment to make this work," he said.

Adeline Wright, owner and operator of a local salon, said she and a number of other progressive local small business owners favored a more ambitious ordinance.

"The ordinance that you are passing tonight is a compromise in favor of the desires of corporate big-business lobbyists of Duluth. This proposed ordinance is not the result necessarily of a favorable compromise between equals on a level playing field, and equality is in fact the core basis on which any true compromise can be made," she said.

But 1st District Councilor Gary Anderson said: "What we're setting here today as a council is a minimum standard, and there are many businesses already in our community that provide benefits that far exceed anything like what's in this ordinance."

In other business, the council approved a $400,000 tax abatement package to support the construction of CityView Flats, a 105-unit apartment building at 333 N. Fifth Ave. W. The resolution passed by a 7-1 vote, with Fosle opposed. When it meets next week, the St. Louis County Board of Commissioners will be asked to forgo an equal quantity of taxes to help bring the $20 million project forward.