Workers and many business owners in St. Paul are divided over recommendations that would require all employers — regardless of size — to offer staff paid sick time.

A city-appointed task force created the recommendations, which St. Paul officials are using to draft the sick leave ordinance they will release Thursday. If city officials follow the task force’s advice, they will end up with a more stringent policy than Minneapolis, which this May became the first city in the Midwest to require almost all private employers to offer paid leave.

Minneapolis exempted businesses with fewer than six staffers from the requirement, though such businesses must allow employees to accrue unpaid time off. Task force members in St. Paul said they felt it was fair and in the public’s best interest to have regulations apply to everyone.

“There was a real strong sense that since everyone gets sick, we wanted everyone to have access to this,” said Rick Varco, who participated in the St. Paul task force and is political director with SEIU Healthcare Minnesota.

Leaders of the task force said the recommendations the group put forward are likely to evolve over the next couple of months, as the public weighs in and the City Council considers the ordinance. Council members are scheduled to vote on the regulations in August.

The intense public interest in the issue was evident Tuesday night, when more than 130 people packed a hearing of the city’s Human Rights and Equal Economic Opportunity Commission. Arline Datu was one of many residents who supported paid sick time.

“Good, hardworking people should be able to stay home when they are sick … and not have to worry if they will have the money to pay their bills,” Datu said.

Businesses concerned

Mike Schumann, who owns a home furnishing store on Grand Avenue, told the commission he takes care of his employees and the additional government regulation would bring an onerous expense.

“The profit margin in our business is so thin, that’s kind of the difference between survival and not,” Schumann said.

The paid-sick-leave ordinance could bring a “gigantic financial liability” to many businesses in the city, said Matt Kramer, president of the St. Paul Area Chamber of Commerce. Kramer, who co-chaired the sick-leave task force, is waiting for the draft ordinance before pushing for specific changes. But he sent a letter to city leaders this month, saying the one-size-fits-all mandate could discourage businesses from moving to St. Paul and force those already here to cut back on staff and other expenses in order to pay for the sick time.

“For the employees who are covered, and for whom this is a new benefit, they will undoubtedly experience the positive impact of a new benefit. For those laid off as a result of an employer downsizing, or who are replaced by a smart mobile device, the outcomes will be exceedingly negative,” he wrote.

Staff with the nonprofit Neighborhoods Organizing for Change, which also pushed for sick leave requirements in Minneapolis, said other cities that implemented similar ordinances have not seen such negative impacts.

Comparison to Minneapolis

Despite a couple of key differences, many of the recommended regulations for St. Paul closely resemble those in Minneapolis.

Employees would accrue one hour for every 30 hours worked, and could earn up to 48 hours a year and bank up to 80 hours. They could use that time if they have a physical or mental illness or to handle a family member’s illness. They would also be able to use paid leave if they or a family member were the victim of domestic abuse, sexual assault or stalking — a form of leave called safe time.

The St. Paul task force did not determine how the city would enforce the regulations, said co-chairwoman Rose Roach. They left that up to city officials, she said.

The group did suggest that employees should be able to bring lawsuits against employers who are violating the ordinance, a clause not included in the Minneapolis policy.

“What’s an ordinance if a worker doesn’t really have any ability to get justice if, in fact, they have been violated?” said Roach, who is executive director of the Minnesota Nurses Association. She expects the business community will push city leaders to align with Minneapolis on that issue.

“From the labor community, we’ll fight pretty strongly to keep that in there,” she said.