In a move city leaders said would protect St. Paul’s most vulnerable workers, the City Council approved an ordinance Wednesday requiring private businesses to provide sick leave to employees.

The unanimous vote by the City Council makes St. Paul the second Minnesota city to approve a sick-leave ordinance, joining more than two dozen cities nationwide that mandate sick leave. The crowd packed into the council chambers erupted in applause and cheers after the 7-0 vote.

Now, worker advocates and St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman said, it’s time for the state to “follow our lead.”

“At the end of the day, the important thing is for there to be a statewide policy,” Coleman said after the vote. “This should be a nationwide policy.”

Said Council Member Jane Prince: “I hope this sends a message to the state for a statewide law.”

The City Council’s short discussion and vote Wednesday followed months of debate and emotional testimony at public hearings, and came amid ongoing objections from the St. Paul Chamber of Commerce and members of the business community.

Minneapolis was the first Minnesota city to approve a sick leave ordinance — in May — and Duluth also is exploring a sick-leave ordinance.

The St. Paul rules would apply to businesses and organizations of all sizes. Workers could earn up to 48 hours of sick time per year and carry over hours, with the ability to accrue up to 80 hours at a time. Employees could take time off to care for themselves or family members in case of illness or another emergency, such as stalking or domestic violence.

Minneapolis’ ordinance allows for the same amount of sick time but exempts businesses with five or fewer employees from paying for sick time.

The St. Paul ordinance goes into effect July 1, 2017, for businesses with at least 24 employees. Smaller businesses will have to comply beginning Jan. 1, 2018.

St. Paul also included a provision allowing workers to sue their employer if they felt they had been retaliated against for using sick leave or reporting a sick leave violation.

Support from workers

The worker-friendly ordinance has drawn support from advocacy groups and a coalition of faith leaders.

Tecara Monn, an organizer for Neighborhoods Organizing for Change, said she has lost multiple jobs over the years because she has needed to leave work to take care of sick children. Parents shouldn’t be forced to decide between keeping a job or caring for an ill child, she said.

Now, she said, they won’t have to.

“This is great,” she said. “This is a big move here for St. Paul.”

The ordinances approved by the state’s two largest cities will level the playing field and give low-income workers much-needed flexibility in their lives, Monn said. In turn, she said she believes employers will also see a benefit, as workers’ lives become more stable.

“It will cut down on turnover,” she said of workers having to change jobs over and over again. “It will keep them energized.”

Javen Swanson, a pastor at Gloria Dei Lutheran Church in Highland Park and a leader of the social justice group Isaiah, said the vote “represents a big victory for human dignity.”

He praised the City Council for listening throughout the process — from advocates to those, primarily employers, who are concerned about the ordinance’s impact on small businesses. Forming a task force made up of diverse voices from across the city was “a smart move by the council,” he said. It ensured that many viewpoints were heard, he said.

Like Prince and Coleman, Swanson said the state should take the next step.

“It’s time for the state Legislature to act on this,” Swanson said.

Business concerns

While there were many smiles outside the council chambers Wednesday, business owners have raised a number of concerns, including that the new rules would put financial and administrative strain on companies. They have urged the city to follow Minneapolis’ lead and exempt small companies from the paid-leave requirements.

The St. Paul Area Chamber of Commerce had asked the City Council to consider several other amendments to the ordinance over the past several weeks, including exempting highly compensated part-time workers and student workers at private colleges. They also asked the City Council to fund an outside economic consultant to study the impact of the ordinance and to propose changes, if needed.

A call Wednesday to chamber President Matt Kramer was not immediately returned.

Coleman said business leaders have legitimate concerns, and he said the city will continue to monitor the effect of the ordinance on jobs. In the end, though, the ordinance is about protecting those people most vulnerable to losing work because of illness. The ordinance is good policy, he said.

But, he said, much like how a statewide smoking ban was needed to erase differences from city to city, the Legislature needs to now act.

“This issue is going to continue to be before us,” Coleman said.

 

Staff writer Jessie Van Berkel contributed to this story.