A restaurant worker who lost his job — and then his car and his home — after suffering an injury and missing a shift pleaded with Minneapolis City Council members Wednesday to take a stand for low-wage workers by mandating paid sick leave for nearly all workers.

A restaurant owner, who said she works a second job to make ends meet, urged the council to vote against such an ordinance, warning that it would drive up costs and force small businesses to close.

With Minneapolis poised to become the first Midwest city to mandate paid sick leave for most workers, the two were among those who poured into City Hall on Wednesday for a final chance to make the case for — or against — a proposed ordinance that would require most businesses to provide paid sick leave.

For more than three hours, 73 people took turns testifying at a public hearing. The full council will vote on the issue next week. Dozens more packed the council chambers and spilled over into a nearby viewing room. Before the hearing, supporters of the ordinance rallied outside City Hall, chanting as they marched to the meeting.

The hearing marked a critical point in a monthslong debate that has divided some of the council’s most powerful constituencies. Progressive groups, ranging from labor unions to religious organizations, have called on the city to use the policy to help erase glaring racial disparities. Business owners and leaders of business advocacy groups, meanwhile, have warned that the mandate — which would apply to all businesses in the city with at least six employees — would be a crippling burden in costs and administration.

On Wednesday, the bulk of the public comments were in favor of the ordinance. Of the 73 people who spoke, 50 favored paid sick leave, 15 were opposed and eight others had specific questions or tweaks to propose. And while a majority of council members have previously indicated support for passing a sick-leave policy, many of the people who turned out for the public hearing didn’t see the matter as a done deal.

Employee stories

A parade of fast-food workers, teachers, nurses, small business owners, labor union leaders and others told council members that requiring sick leave for more workers could be a key to reducing persistent racial disparities in income, employment, education and other measures. Advocates have cited a study that estimated that 42 percent of Minneapolis workers lack access to paid sick leave, with the greatest number of them women and people of color.

Rod Adams, who worked as a cook until he sliced his finger while chopping meat, said he was told to bandage it and keep working. When he eventually took time off to deal with the injury, he said, his managers fired him. Lacking access to sick leave or protection from an employer’s retaliation, Adams said he felt powerless and trapped in the kind of spiral faced by many low-wage workers. Without a job, he couldn’t afford his rent or his car.

“I’m asking you to take a stand, because I lost everything, and there are so many people who lost everything they had because they did not have a protection like this,” he said.

Others said council members should consider the public health risks of workers clocking in while ill because they lacked options.

“This is also an issue of health and safety,” said Stephanie Darrow, health and education outreach coordinator at Gandhi Mahal, a south Minneapolis restaurant. “I’ve had to come in to work sick before at other jobs because I couldn’t stay home, I couldn’t afford to lose that paycheck. People shouldn’t be put in that situation.”

Business concerns

But several business owners and business group leaders said Minneapolis companies are already overburdened with taxes and regulations. They said many independently decide to take care of their employees by offering flexible benefits, including paid time off, and that forcing a mandate on businesses of nearly all sizes made little practical sense.

Some said the ordinance would impose undue technical hardships, particularly in industries where workers frequently move from city to city during the course of a workday or for companies with employees in several metro municipalities. Others said paying for up to 48 hours of sick leave each year for each employee could add up to tens of thousands of dollars in additional expenses.

Rebecca Illingworth, owner of Tinto Cocina + Cantina in Uptown, said she was disappointed by the way the city handled the discussion over sick leave, particularly in a lack of outreach to business owners who don’t speak English. She said many small businesses feel they are being punished for the actions of large ones with less interest in the well-being of individual employees. She said she’d need financial assistance from the city to make the ordinance work.

“You guys are not listening,” Illingworth said. “Listen to your small businesses, because if you don’t, we’re going to end up being the land of 10,000 chains.”

Council members will continue their discussion on the issue in a special committee meeting May 26 before taking a final vote the next day. If Minneapolis approves the ordinance, it will join 23 other U.S. cities, five states and one county that have passed sick-leave policies. St. Paul is currently considering its own ordinance.