St. Paul fast-food workers say they are working while ill or not being paid when they stay home sick, despite a city law that guarantees paid sick time.

About two dozen workers and activists demonstrated at City Hall on Wednesday afternoon, carrying signs painted to look like French fries that read "Sick days now!" in English and Spanish. They were joined by two City Council members who agree the city needs to do more to enforce the regulation.

"They pass laws all the time," Teal Witherspoon-Brown, who works at Jimmy John's, told the crowd. "We'll see if this one stands by what they put out there."

Passed in 2016, Earned Sick and Safe Time took effect July 1, 2017, for businesses with 24 or more employees and Jan. 1, 2018, for the rest. Under the law, employees can take paid time off to address their own health needs or those of family members. Minneapolis has a similar policy.

Council Members Rebecca Noecker and Dai Thao joined the demonstration and assured workers that they would continue to work to enforce the sick-time ordinance, as well as the city's newer $15 minimum-wage policy.

"Those policies mean nothing if they are not enforced," Noecker said. "The work that we are engaged in is not going to be finished in a day or a week or a lifetime or generations, but we are not free to turn away from it."

St. Paul's Human Rights and Equal Economic Opportunity (HREEO) department received 35 complaints of alleged Earned Sick and Safe Time violations in 2017 and 53 in 2018, according to annual reports. The department has one staff member who investigates complaints.

Noecker, Thao and Council Member Jane Prince are working to beef up investigations by allocating money in the 2020 budget for a total of four enforcement officers, Thao said.

"It's been two years. From the story that I've been hearing, it's been disappointing," he said. "I see change coming."

Ben Field, a former employee at Taco Bell at 565 N. Snelling Av., filed a complaint with the city after he was told he couldn't use his earned sick time and then wasn't paid when he did.

Though the law was detailed on a poster in the back of the restaurant, Field, 19, said his manager "explained that he didn't care he was violating the law, he knew what the poster in the back said, and he was not going to pay me." Field said he was eventually paid after speaking with a city investigator.

City human rights department spokesman Alex Dumke said Field's case remains open and so is not public.

Reached by phone, Taco Bell manager Roberto Marquez said he was unaware of any employee complaints.

"We pay when employees ask for sick time," he said.

In response to a request for comment, Taco Bell's corporate office issued a statement from franchisee Border Foods.

"We understand and comply with the sick and safe time ordinance," the statement said. "If a situation does occur where we do not comply, we rectify the situation and retrain our team as necessary."

Former Burger King employee MJ Capers, 16, said she was told she couldn't have time off when she had the flu, then food poisoning.

Capers filed a complaint with the city last month. She said she wants to see consequences for the company.

"If they don't follow [the law], they should be having fines," she said. "If all they really care about is money, then we should go after what they care about most."

Staff at the Burger King at 455 S. Robert St. referred a request for comment to Tri City Foods, the franchisee. Tri City Foods representatives could not be reached for comment, and the Burger King corporate office did not respond to a request.

Capers wept on Wednesday as she recounted her experience to the demonstrators gathered at City Hall. But she said she's going to keep pushing for employers to follow the law.

"Until they change," she said, "I'm not going to stop."

Emma Nelson • 612-673-4509