The city of Minneapolis has settled its first case of retaliation under the paid sick-leave ordinance, resulting in an $11,000 settlement for the employee, and sending a message that there will be consequences for businesses that fail to grant paid sick leave under the law that went into effect in July.
According to the city, a gas station employee reported a violation after he said he was ill on Sept. 19, asked for sick leave and his supervisor demanded that he find his own replacement. The employee was suspended for a week, and then left off the work schedule, which effectively cost him his job.
The Department of Civil Rights would not immediately release the name of the gas station or the employee on Friday, but documents obtained by the Star Tribune showed the gas station was the Metro Petro & Car Wash at 2700 University Av. SE. and the employee was Gregory James.
Not able to work after being left off the schedule, James was evicted from his apartment across the street in early October, he said.
"It happened pretty quickly," James said Friday. "No paychecks, no rent money."
Three months after he filed the complaint, the Minneapolis Department of Civil Rights reached an agreement for the gas station to pay $11,000 in lost wages to James. The city will monitor compliance at the gas station and conduct training there, separately, for employees and management.
"The quickest way to erode public trust is to fail to enforce a policy that people helped shape and that the city promised to implement," Mayor Jacob Frey said in a statement. "Our Civil Rights Department is fully committed to enforcing the landmark policies that help boost health and safety for people who live and work in our city. They have my full support in doing so."
The supervisor who denied James' sick-leave request is no longer with Metro Petro, the city said.
James said he was a manager at the gas station and came down with a "fairly bad" cold the day he asked for sick leave.
"It's a small workspace with a small work group, so once one person comes in sick, everyone gets sick," he said. "It happens a lot."
He texted his supervisor, who was new to the job, to ask for leave, and she said no, that he needed to ask six hours before the shift. Then she required him to find a replacement.
After he was suspended, James got in touch with the Department of Civil Rights and filed a complaint.
The Department of Civil Rights sent a letter to Metro Petro owner Mia Lambert on Sept. 25, but no one from the gas station responded and a formal investigation was launched. Lambert did not return a message from the Star Tribune on Friday.
The paid sick-leave ordinance requires that employers with six or more employees award workers one hour of leave for every 30 hours on the job. For the first year, the city said it was handling reported violations by mediating disputes and issuing warnings. The settlement in the gas station case is the first example of the ordinance leading to financial consequences for a business.
Starting in July, sick-leave violations will be punishable by fines.
The Minneapolis City Council came under pressure in November when the proposed 2018 budget included little money to enforce the sick leave and minimum-wage ordinances. But the council funded a needed third investigator in the Civil Rights Department when the final budget was adopted in December.
In a lawsuit brought against the city by the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce, the Hennepin County District Court issued a temporary injunction prohibiting the city from enforcing the sick-leave ordinance against any "employer resident outside the geographic boundaries of the city." The case is still working its way through the court, and the injunction is in place.
James is now living in Arizona with relatives, looking for work.
"People really need to know about the new laws and obviously employers are trying to hide it," he said. "This was a case where there was more than enough staff and they didn't want to let someone take the day off sick."