Paid sick time laws in Minneapolis and St. Paul are facing a major test amid the spread of COVID-19, as workers cash out their hours to avoid going into workplaces that remain open, or as a stopgap before their first unemployment check arrives.
The cities, which both implemented earned sick and safe time policies in recent years, are fielding questions from workers and employers and updating online information about how the ordinances apply during a pandemic.
"I really believe we fought hard for a policy like this so that it would be preventative against the situation we now find ourselves in," said St. Paul City Council Member Mitra Jalali. "If everywhere had [earned sick and safe time] and it was fully being followed, there's a strong argument that more people could have stayed home and not gotten other people sick."
In a statement late Wednesday, Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey urged employers in the city "to retain their employees and pay retained employees who have accrued earned sick and safe time if the business is financially capable of doing so."
Workers who are laid off and return to work within 90 days are entitled to accrued sick time they previously earned, he said.
Brian Walsh, director of labor standards enforcement in the Minneapolis Department of Civil Rights, said the city has been hearing from workers wondering what to do when their accrued sick time runs out. That's where unemployment insurance comes in, he said.
Tens of thousands of Minnesotans applied for unemployment insurance after Gov. Tim Walz issued an emergency order Monday closing bars, restaurants and other public places. Walz also issued an executive order eliminating the requirement that workers wait a week before applying.
In addition to covering workers who are sick or caring for a sick family member, the sick time ordinances in both Minneapolis and St. Paul cover workers whose employers have been ordered to shut down.
"In the industries where the mayor or governor has ordered closure, the idea is that sick and safe time would help bridge those workers, or help keep them afloat, until they actually start receiving their unemployment insurance benefits checks," Walsh said.
Kevin Osborn, who is on furlough from his job as a line cook at Alma, said he's expecting his last check on Friday to include his paid-time-off balance. After that, he said, he's praying for unemployment to come through.
Osborn and other members of the Restaurant Opportunities Center (ROC), a group that advocates for restaurant workers, are considering creating an emergency fund for those who need it, he said.
"If this goes on for a couple months, so many of our restaurants just won't be there to come back to," he said. "Or if they are, they're not going to hire us all back."
For those whose workplaces remain open, the situation is even more dire. Alyssa Rodewald, a supervisor at a Caribou Coffee shop in Minneapolis, said she and several co-workers have decided to stay home to avoid getting sick, even though they won't get paid once their paid time off is exhausted. Because the coffee shop remains open, they can't file for unemployment.
According to the Caribou website, select locations are closed and those still open no longer offer in-store seating. A request for comment was not immediately returned.
Rodewald started an online petition, which had more than 1,000 signatures Thursday, calling for Caribou to close temporarily and provide emergency paid leave "until the threat of this virus is contained."
"We want to get paid," she said. "We don't want to have to risk our lives."