In what council members called a historic moment, Minneapolis on Friday became the first Midwestern city to mandate that nearly all private businesses provide paid sick leave.

The unanimous council vote followed months of heated debate, packed public meetings and last-minute policy revisions, and may set a precedent for other Minnesota cities that are exploring the issue, including St. Paul and Duluth. Across the country, 23 cities, five states and one county have passed sick-leave laws.

Starting July 1, 2017, workers at Minneapolis businesses with six or more employees will be able to earn up to 48 hours of paid sick leave per year, at a rate of one hour of leave per 30 hours worked. Smaller businesses will need to provide the same amount of unpaid leave. With few exceptions, any private employee working at least 80 hours in Minneapolis in a year — whether or not their company is based in the city — will be entitled to the benefit.

Several council members said they were spurred to keep working on the idea in large part because of a lack of action on work and economic issues by the state and federal governments.

"This is such a significant moment for our city," said Council Member Lisa Bender. "This is the first of many regulations that our city and other cities across the country are passing to address the new economic and political realities in our country."

Friday's vote was cheered by a large crowd of supporters who packed the council chambers. Afterward, they spilled out into the hallway, hugging, singing and chanting: "The people, united, will never be defeated."

Business groups concerned

Some of the business leaders who had warned that a sweeping mandate would likely force businesses to raise prices, slash benefits or close their doors said they remain concerned that the ordinance will hurt the local economy.

In a statement, Minneapolis Downtown Council president and CEO Steve Cramer and Minneapolis Regional Chamber of Commerce interim president John Stanoch said, "Despite their good intentions, our elected officials do not know better than the thousands of businesses which have developed policies and practices that work well for them and the people they employ."

Workers, labor groups and other advocacy organizations had pushed the council for more than a year to approve the policy and other workplace reforms, demanding action for the estimated 42 percent of Minneapolis workers who lack paid sick leave. Many had said the ordinance would make a significant impact on reducing racial and economic disparities, as many of the workers without sick leave are women and people of color.

'It means everything'

Janitorial worker Tyrone Spencer joined other supporters in a celebration in the City Hall rotunda following Friday's meeting. He said the ordinance will keep others from experiencing the same "domino effect" of problems he faced after dealing with a serious illness that required hospitalization. Without paid sick leave, he said, his income dropped so much that he couldn't pay rent and lost his housing.

"It means everything, not just for me, but for everyone," he said.

But Cramer and Stanoch said they "remain concerned about the many impacts" the ordinance will have on businesses and workers. In their statement, they said they are particularly disappointed that the council's decision will "disrupt administration of existing time-off plans which provide superior benefits to workers."

Before the vote, council members took turns describing the long process to refine the ordinance, which included dozens of listening sessions and a lengthy review by an appointed panel, the Workplace Partnership Group. Some noted that they'd sparred with their council colleagues and taken heat from both advocates and opponents of sick leave.

Friday's vote followed a lengthy committee meeting Thursday in which council members made several technical adjustments to the ordinance. Members voted to expand the rights of workers and businesses to appeal complaints and added a provision to help new businesses manage additional costs. In their first year of operation, new businesses will be required only to provide unpaid leave, rather than paid leave, to workers.

'A landmark day'

Some council members said they saw the approval of sick leave as the first of many steps the city should take to improve workers' lives. Council Member Alondra Cano said the sick-leave issue is part of the "broader injustice" of low wages.

"So I am here to say: Congratulations on this win, let's keep moving forward. And I challenge the community and I challenge the council to pass a raise in the minimum wage to $15 an hour, if not this year, then next year," she said.

Mayor Betsy Hodges, who first offered her support for sick leave in her State of the City address last year, said in a statement that the goal of the ordinance is to improve public health and "provide greater opportunity for low-income families."

"Today, Minneapolis has recognized that no one should have to choose between being healthy and being paid," she said. "This is a landmark day for Minneapolis."

In St. Paul, council members may consider their own plan as soon as August. A task force appointed to study the issue finalized its recommendations this week. In Duluth, sick-leave advocates recently released a study on the number of workers with sick leave and urged city officials to begin discussing an ordinance.

Before Friday's vote, Council Member Blong Yang said that while he would vote for the Minneapolis ordinance, he shares the concerns of some businesses and worries about what lies ahead for the small businesses in his North Side ward. He also noted that while the council's vote on the matter was important, the city should now turn its attention to an outbreak of violent crime in the neighborhoods he represents.

"Last night, at least four shootings happened in Ward Five," he said. "And so while we're making historic laws, I hope we'll focus next on stopping gun violence in north Minneapolis."

Erin Golden • 612-673-4790