The city of St. Paul has enlisted an outside investigator to examine its sick and safe time policy after a part-time employee accused the city of violating its own law.
In a lawsuit, Benjamin Smith says he was not informed of his right to paid time off and was denied the time when he asked for it. Smith works as a lifeguard for St. Paul Parks and Recreation.
“I think the biggest issue by far is that they didn’t inform any of their employees, or at least a set of employees,” said Mark Smith, Benjamin’s father and attorney. “They weren’t given any of the notices, so they had no way to even know they could earn the benefits or access the rights.”
The city was served with the lawsuit May 28. Smith’s parents, attorneys with the St. Paul law firm Wrobel & Smith, are seeking class-action certification and damages in excess of $50,000, according to the complaint.
St. Paul City Attorney Lyndsey Olson said in an interview Thursday that city staff have been aware of Benjamin Smith’s concerns and have had conversations with the family. Olson’s office received the lawsuit after the Human Resources department had launched an investigation, she said.
“It’s difficult for us to know what the entirety of the situation and the facts are without seeing that investigation,” Olson said.
Andrea Turner, the city’s human resources director, could not be reached for comment.
Under the Earned Sick and Safe Time ordinance, which the St. Paul City Council passed in 2016, employees can take paid time off to address their own health needs or those of family members. Fast-food workers who said their employers were violating the law demonstrated at City Hall last week.
According to the complaint, Benjamin Smith, currently a high school senior, worked as a part-time lifeguard starting in July 2017 and was never informed of his rights to accrue and use sick time. In July 2018, after learning about the sick time policy elsewhere, he became ill and asked to use his accrued time to take a sick day, the complaint said.
The first supervisor Smith spoke to “claimed to have no knowledge of earned sick and safe time or the [ordinance],” the complaint said. A higher-level supervisor told Smith that he had accrued less than three hours of sick time and would be paid for his time at the end of the year.
The complaint said the second supervisor acted “confused, irritated and dismissive” and “[demanded] to know if Plaintiff ‘was the one who had called downtown’ asking about sick and safe time.”
Smith went on to speak with a third supervisor, the complaint said, and that person repeated that employees “could not access [sick time] during the course of the year, but that all earned hours would be paid out to employees at the end of the year.”
In an interview Thursday, Mark Smith said the family contacted the city last summer about Benjamin’s experience, but did not make a formal complaint. Based on what supervisors said, Benjamin had decided to wait for his sick time to be paid out at the end of the year.
When that didn’t happen, Mark Smith said, they met with staff in the human rights department, which investigates alleged sick and safe time violations, and submitted a formal complaint. Attempts to schedule a meeting with the human resources department were unsuccessful, he said.
Eventually, Mark Smith said, the City Attorney’s Office contacted him and “made a nominal offer” to compensate Benjamin’s earned sick and safe time “but in no way addressed what really are the key issues here,” he said.
“We didn’t want to go this route,” Mark Smith said of the lawsuit. “We just wanted the city to stand up and do what they were supposed to do.”
Mark Smith said other former and current city employees have contacted him with allegations similar to those of his son, and many have offered to assist with the lawsuit. The lawsuit has not yet been filed in Ramsey County District Court.