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During the first few weeks owning a small business, I felt like I was drinking from a fire hose. Dozens of questions (few answers), lots of problems (few solutions) and only myself to rely on. This is not unlike many of the small-business owners who call Minneapolis home. For them, the hectic day-in-and-day-out routine of running a small business means they're the CEO, sales/marketing, service provider, HR, accountant and janitor all wrapped up in one. It is an exhausting and exhilarating experience that makes it extremely difficult for most to survive. In fact, most don't.

I'm proud of my time as a small-business owner. There is nothing like starting the day not knowing what's in front of you. The uncertainties one faces are literally unimaginable until you come face to face with them. So, with all the barriers ahead of our small-business owners, I feel strongly that governments should make laws, policies and bureaucracy as easy as possible for them to navigate.

Minneapolis is one of the U.S. cities leading in local labor laws. We've adopted minimum wage, sick and safe time, and other wage theft protections, and we created a Labor Standards Enforcement Division to see this work through. But despite our commitment to these policies, we still face an uphill battle in enforcing them.

We focus on catching the "big fish" — employers who intentionally drive down local labor standards — with the same-old approach: complaints, lawsuits, fines and more fines. But when it comes to the "small fish" — small/micro businesses — that approach just doesn't work. For many local small/micro businesses that are not in compliance with labor standards and are I/BIPOC-owned (meaning by immigrants, Black people, Indigenous people or other people of color), the issue is not a lack of willingness, but a lack of awareness of the standards and the resources to comply with them.

So, what can we do to help our small/micro businesses into compliance? That's exactly what the City's Labor Standards Enforcement Division, the Workplace Justice Lab at Rutgers University and I sought to find out. We decided to try a new approach, one characterized by curiosity, creativity and collaboration.

We created the Minneapolis Small Business High-Road Labor Standards Intervention Pilot Project, the first of its kind in the nation to connect business technical assistance services to labor enforcement. Traditionally, these divisions are siloed and separate from one another. But this pilot project provided much-needed combined support services to I/BIPOC-owned small businesses. We offered education, one-to-one meetings with bookkeepers, free access to HR software and ongoing support. And now, as the pilot project adapts and grows — we are better poised, and closer than ever, to tackling the problem.

In my experience both as a small-business owner and as a member of the Minneapolis City Council, our bureaucracy tends to be operationally, systematically rigid. People face internal resistance to problem-solving, made all the more challenging due to limited resources and tight budgets, which leaves little room for innovation. Federal funding provided to the city gave Minneapolis an opportunity to get creative, think outside the box, and invest in new ideas and solutions. But as that funding sunsets, we can't let that out-of-the-box thinking sunset, too.

If we want our small-business community to bounce back, we need to take action to make that happen. As Lutunji Abram — the owner of Lutunji's Palate, a participating business — stated: "This was as a saving grace for me." We need to continue to fund and support this work. Considering the project's minimal budget and significant impact, we have no excuse not to.

And, if we want the city of Minneapolis to bounce back, we need to continue to approach the different, difficult issues with curiosity, creativity and collaboration. Let's stamp and repeat this approach on the other issues we face where what we're doing and what we've been doing just isn't working. This pilot project shows just how impactful those small shifts can be.

Emily Koski represents Ward 11 on the Minneapolis City Council.