Minneapolis is on the verge of becoming the first city in the Midwest to mandate paid sick leave for most workers.

In a special committee meeting Thursday, the council gave unanimous, preliminary approval to an ordinance that will require all Minneapolis businesses with at least six employees to provide their workers with up to 48 hours of paid sick leave each year. Employees at smaller businesses will be entitled to the same amount of unpaid sick leave. If approved at the council’s regular meeting on Friday, the ordinance will go into effect on July 1, 2017.

Given the vote on Thursday, Friday’s action will essentially amount to a formality. After more than a year of discussion and debate, the council appeared to be united on the key points of the ordinance. Unlike past meetings, which revealed sharp differences of opinions on the needs and rights of workers and businesses, most of Thursday’s discussion focused on the specific details of how and when the policy will be enforced — and on council members’ excitement over a move they said would improve the lives of many residents.

“Right now, 40 percent of our workers in the city of Minneapolis have to choose between going to work when they are sick and making ends meet, with no paid time off,” Council Member Lisa Bender said. “We have created a huge new protection for workers in the city.”

Council Member Elizabeth Glidden, who led much of the work on the issue, choked up as she prepared to call for the final vote.

“My heart is pounding,” she said. “This is one of the most impactful things I’ve been involved in — ever.”

Sick leave debate

The new ordinance would apply to employees who work at least 80 hours per year in the city. The time off could be used when an employee or family member is ill, seeking medical care, or dealing with domestic abuse or other related issues. And following an amendment introduced and approved Thursday, the sick leave could be used by parents to care for children when schools or child care facilities are closed because of weather, power outages or other “unexpected” reasons.

Employers would be required to maintain records of employees’ hours, provide that information to the city, and could face a $1,500 penalty, plus administrative fees, for denying the benefit or retaliating against employees who use it.

The policy is the product of a process launched last spring when Mayor Betsy Hodges introduced the sick-leave idea as part of her Working Families Agenda. It survived the collapse of that agenda after considerable outcry from businesses, and was revised after more than a dozen listening sessions and months of meetings by an appointed committee.

That process culminated last week in a public hearing that drew more than 70 speakers, most of them in favor of the ordinance. A smaller number of speakers, many of them business owners, warned the council that requiring sick leave would create considerable economic hardships and force some small businesses to raise prices or close.

Council members acknowledged some of those concerns with tweaks to the ordinance proposal, including one that would allow new businesses of any size to provide unpaid sick leave, rather than paid leave, during the first year they are in business. That provision will be removed five years after the date the ordinance is implemented.

Council Member Kevin Reich said council members understand the policy will require some adjustment from all businesses, including those just starting out.

“It’s just acknowledging that it’s a real situation, and we’re going to have some modest accommodation of that,” he said.

Additional changes

Council Member Jacob Frey authored a package of amendments related to how the ordinance would be enforced, providing both workers and employers the right to appeal the city’s ruling on any complaints.

Other notable adjustments approved Thursday included an amendment by Council Member Lisa Bender, who wanted to eliminate a proposed exemption for “casual,” on-call health care workers. Now, the ordinance extends the benefit to those workers, but they may take sick time only for shifts that have been previously scheduled.

If the ordinance is approved Friday, Minneapolis will join 23 other U.S. cities, five states and one county that have already passed sick-leave requirements. St. Paul officials are currently studying the issue, and advocates now appear to be turning their attention to Duluth, where this week they called for the city to mandate the benefit.