The St. Paul City Council passed an ordinance Wednesday that aims to bolster investigations of worker complaints about sick time and minimum wage.

With a 6-0 vote, council members established a Division of Labor Standards Enforcement and Education to enforce St. Paul’s laws requiring earned sick and safe time and an increased minimum wage.

City officials have faced pressure from workers’ rights groups to hire more investigators to enforce the laws when employers fail to follow them. St. Paul’s Human Rights and Equal Economic Opportunity department received 35 complaints of alleged earned sick and safe time violations in 2017 and 53 in 2018, according to annual reports.

The city employs a single investigator to look into earned sick and safe time issues and is hiring another to focus on minimum wage issues. Under the city’s earned sick and safe time law, employees can take paid time off to address their own health needs or those of family members.

‘Getting away with it’

Council Member Rebecca Noecker, one of the ordinance’s sponsors, said it was about “putting our money where our mouth is” after the council worked to pass laws on sick and safe time and increasing the minimum wage.

Noecker said it “sort of boils my blood” to see larger companies flouting the rules. “I don’t want the big companies getting away with it because we don’t have the staffing to continue pursuing them to the fullest extent of the law,” she said.

The ordinance would also increase outreach to community groups to help them educate workers about their rights and develop posters for companies to display. It would also require the mayor’s office to appoint a Labor Advisory Committee, which would focus on advocacy around improving labor laws in St. Paul.

Passage of the ordinance comes the day before St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter is slated to present his 2020 budget, which will dictate how many city workers will staff the new division.

During a public hearing and debate on the ordinance last week, Noecker proposed an amendment that would have mandated that four investigators staff the division, but members voted it down due to concerns that it would be unenforceable.

Council members said they will fight for the four positions during the budget process.

Aboubacar Keita, who has worked as a janitor at a McDonald’s in St. Paul for three years, said that after he was in the hospital for three weeks last year, he was surprised to learn he would receive only a week’s worth of pay.

It was only after advocates from Centro de Trabajadores Unidos en la Lucha, a group focused on educating workers about their rights, told Keita what his rights were that he filed a complaint with the city in May. He has not heard back about his case but is hoping to get what he’s owed.

“If I get that money, that’s going to help me support my family,” Keita said.