St. Paul is exploring the controversial idea of requiring businesses to provide paid sick leave for workers, a topic that has already prompted months of debate in Minneapolis.

The city will start by ensuring St. Paul employees — from permanent city staff members to temporary and seasonal workers — are able to accrue sick leave, Mayor Chris Coleman announced at a breakfast event Tuesday with Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges.

St. Paul will also begin talking with private business owners about creating a citywide sick-leave policy, Coleman said. An appointed panel will come up with recommendations, which the City Council will consider in June, he said.

A group of business owners were invited to Council Member Rebecca Noecker’s office on the morning of Coleman’s announcement, Heartland restaurant owner Lenny Russo said. Their message to Noecker and city officials was: “We’re open to this discussion. We want to have the discussion,” Russo said.

But it will be a difficult process to shape a policy that does not overburden businesses and force places to close, he said.

“We’re not sticking our hands up and saying, ‘You can’t do this because you have no right,’ ” Russo said. But the business owners did have questions, he said: “Can we do it? Is it legal? And if we do do it, how do we do it? And is it practical?”

Sick leave requirements could create issues for businesses, from small restaurants to bigger companies like the Minnesota Wild or St. Paul Saints, which have a lot of part-time staff, said Matt Kramer, president of the St. Paul Area Chamber of Commerce. But Kramer said he is glad members of the business community will be involved in shaping the proposal.

“Whatever reservations we may have are somewhat mitigated by the open process,” Kramer said, adding that the city wants to avoid the controversy Minneapolis has faced.

‘This will be controversial’

Minneapolis’ Hodges introduced a Working Families Agenda last fall that included regulations for sick leave and scheduling. Many business owners opposed the scheduling proposal.

“I listened and I heard you. It’s off the table,” Hodges said of the scheduling proposal at a Tuesday breakfast held by the St. Paul Area and Minneapolis Regional Chambers of Commerce. But she stressed the importance of providing paid safe- and sick-leave policies.

The city has since created a panel to focus on sick-leave rules. That group is holding listening sessions and is crafting a proposal that is scheduled to come before the Minneapolis City Council in late February.

The St. Paul City Council will vote next week on creating a task force to look into safe- and sick-leave regulations, Council Member Chris Tolbert said. Safe leave would be offered to someone who needs time off because of domestic violence or sexual abuse.

“This will be controversial, but it’s the right thing to do for the health of the city,” Tolbert said, noting that he doesn’t want people working in food service and other hospitality industries to come in when they are sick.

‘There are some bad actors’

Many St. Paul businesses and restaurants don’t need the city’s help to ensure that public health is protected, Russo said.

“But,” Russo added, “we do recognize the fact that there are some bad actors out there who might not do the right thing if their feet are not held to the fire.”

The panel will have to study the nuances of how sick leave impacts different businesses and how to enforce any regulations that are implemented, Tolbert said.

“There are a lot of unanswered questions,” Coleman said, but noted that 21 other cities have implemented paid sick days and St. Paul can learn from their policies.

“I don’t want to impose a policy that drives mom-and-pop businesses out of business,” he said.

As for the accrued sick leave for city employees, that will be included in the next budget cycle and implemented Jan. 1, 2017, Coleman said.

There are currently 1,018 temporary city government employees and about 700 interns working in the city through St. Paul’s Right Track program who do not have access to paid sick or safe leave, according to the city.

Jessie Van Berkel • 612-673-4649