Before the packed public meetings, the flurry of phone calls to City Hall and the frantic scrambling for a compromise, the people who put together Minneapolis’ Working Families Agenda imagined that it would take only months to pass sweeping reforms for workplaces across the city.
First announced in April 2015 by Mayor Betsy Hodges in her State of the City speech, the agenda introduced the idea of new laws mandating paid sick leave and predictable scheduling, and cracking down on employers withholding wages due their workers. Though none of the ideas initially came with specific proposals, backers at City Hall said their plans were key to helping ease racial disparities.
Five months later, once the big ideas had gained some specifics, supporters found themselves fending off a firestorm of criticism from business owners. E-mails exchanged among the mayor, her chief of staff, and council members in those critical weeks — released by the city this month, seven months after the Star Tribune filed a public data request — provide a closer look at how the proposals began falling apart shortly after they came together. The lone item to survive, paid sick leave, was diverted for more study. It will return to the council for a vote on Friday.
The messages sent during the six-week life span of the much more ambitious Working Families Agenda last fall show city officials being deluged with a wave of critical e-mails from business owners, questioned by council members who felt they’d been left out of the loop and attacked even by groups they’d counted on as allies.
An agenda emerges
Conversations about passing ordinances on sick leave, scheduling requirements and a higher minimum wage began to take shape when a few council members and the mayor met with a few business leaders in early 2015. The city formed an internal work group and council members who took the lead on the issues — Lisa Bender and Elizabeth Glidden — began meeting with the leaders of local community and labor groups, including Neighborhoods Organizing for Change, TakeAction Minnesota and the Service Employees International Union.
Around the same time, workplace issues were becoming an interest nationwide. Other cities, particularly on the West Coast, were passing sick-leave and minimum-wage ordinances, and President Obama had indicated his own interest in sick-leave policies. Another council member, Andrew Johnson, had suggested working on a sick-leave policy for Minneapolis.
Glidden said she’d been hearing concerns from workers for some time, and felt the moment could be right to do something concrete. “And at very least, there was interest at the policymaker level,” she said last week.
What they came up with, including requirements that all employers would need to provide workers’ schedules 28 days in advance and earned sick-leave benefits of up to 72 hours per year, would have been the most sweeping set of workplace policies nationwide. But signs of trouble quickly emerged.
Council President Barb Johnson, Bender and other city officials presented the agenda to the Minneapolis Regional Chamber of Commerce on Aug. 20, before unveiling it publicly. A few days later, the chamber sent back a 10-page outline of questions and concerns, urging more time for business input.
“The proposed timeline is too accelerated to allow for sufficient input from potentially impacted individuals,” chamber officials wrote.
Supporters at City Hall, however, wanted to move forward. On Sept. 8, the proposals were posted on the city’s website.
Bender said last week that she believes sharing the full package of proposals was the right move.
“I always think it’s better to let people know what we’re thinking and hearing at City Hall,” she said.
Plans fall apart
In the days that followed, Glidden turned to the city’s economic development department to understand how the plans would affect the local economy.
“I have checked with our team, and we think the best idea is to rely on business input to understand the impacts on businesses,” wrote David Frank, the city’s director of economic policy and development.
Through September and into October, e-mails started coming in to city inboxes by the hundreds, and then thousands, catching council members off guard. Business owners charged that council members were under the sway of worker advocacy groups and tone-deaf to their concerns. Workers’ advocates accused council members of being pushed around by big business interests.
In an e-mail to TakeAction economy program manager Chris Conry, Andrew Johnson said the idea that he was being influenced by corporate lobbyists was inaccurate. He was mostly hearing from small-business owners.
“I’m not really hearing from lobbyists opposed to this; I’m hearing from constituents who risked everything to open their businesses and hire others who they treat like family,” he wrote.
Around that time, Hodges canceled an interview with Minnesota Public Radio once it became clear that the chamber president would also be on the air and there would be calls from listeners about the Working Families Agenda. Behind the scenes, the mayor’s office was also working to set up a meeting with “progressive restaurant people” to boost support for the proposals.
By mid-October, the proposals had been publicly revised once and privately tweaked at least one other time as officials tried to assuage businesses’ concerns.
On Oct. 13, leaders of 80 of the largest businesses in the state — collectively known as the Minnesota Business Partnership — pushed back against the city’s plans. A spokesman for the group, which included Target, U.S. Bancorp, Xcel Energy and the Mayo Clinic, said members were united in their opposition. (The Star Tribune Co. is also a member of the partnership.) The next day, the mayor announced that the workplace scheduling recommendations were off the table, leaving sick leave as the main goal.
Focusing on sick leave
The move was met with frustration by advocates and by some of the officials who had backed the plans from the start. That afternoon, Glidden wrote to Andrew Johnson, worried that her association with the proposals’ controversial launch would hurt their chances of success with sick leave.
“I think my credibility is damaged as a messenger on any part of this,” she wrote.
In an interview last week, Glidden said the e-mail captured the stress of a moment in which it felt as if everyone involved had become stuck in a bad cycle. She said it was only later in October, when the council formed a new study group to look at sick leave, that the city could finally move forward.
“We did kind of get stuck on step one here with the initial conversations that happened last year,” she said.
Seven months later, the vote that the Working Families Agenda architects imagined would happen in November is days away — at least in part. After months of additional meetings, more than a dozen more listening sessions and one three-hour public hearing, the council will vote Friday on a citywide paid sick-leave policy.