As a business owner, I strive to do what I can to lift up the community I serve in the Central neighborhood of Minneapolis. It’s the whole reason I do what I do. When my customers don’t have enough in their pockets to pay for a meal, I often cover them until Friday comes and they get paid.
So when I heard about the Working Families Agenda, and the opportunity to create a better quality of life for working people across the city, I was interested in being a part of the process to create a new standard, which in turn would actually help my bottom line.
City Council members and the mayor have now shifted the focus of this ordinance to giving workers access to paid sick days, and I am on board — for my employees and my customers. Yet I know from experience what it’s like not to have sick days. Lack of sick days is actually the reason I opened my own business.
Before I opened the Smoke Pit, I worked several jobs around the city. In several of them, I didn’t have access to paid sick days. In fact, there was a point system in place to penalize employees for being sick and taking time to get better. I have a chronic illness and needed to take some days off here and there to heal. When I did that, for every day I stayed home sick, I got points. I would rack them up, and get fired. At each new job — from working at a bakery to a factory to construction — this happened over and over.
Until you experience it, you don’t really know what that injustice feels like.
The final straw was a workplace injury that led to my being labeled a “high-risk liability.” I was fed up; enough was enough. So I decided to open the Smoke Pit and create my own employee culture, where things would be different.
I never want my employees to have to go through what I did. When I have people who are sick — even if they aren’t used to it — they are sent home and still get paid, so they don’t have to worry.
I believe that an investment in my employees is a great investment in my business. By providing the opportunity for my employees to earn paid sick days, similar to how they earn a wage, I know that I’m helping to keep my staff happy and healthy. A happy and healthy workforce is critical to all business success — regardless of size.
People can’t work when they’re sick — they’re frustrated, agitated and just not productive. When we treat our employees with respect and create a work environment that allows them to succeed at work and at home, our businesses thrive as well.
While it makes sense from a business perspective, I care about more than just the bottom line. I see this citywide ordinance as a vehicle to lift up our community. As a father and a grandfather, I’ve seen times when my daughter can’t take the time off from work she needs to go to parent-teacher conferences or to take my granddaughter to doctor’s appointments.
There are a lot of single parents in our community who need to be able to take care of their kids when they are sick; there are a lot of people taking care of aging parents; there are a lot of people who are in need in other ways too — like needing to escape domestic violence. This policy covers all of that and ensures that everyone in our city can take the time they need to care for themselves or a loved one and still pay their bills.
We must also remember that our employees are neighboring businesses’ customers. That means that all small-business owners have an interest in workplace policies that create stability and prosperity for all.
We need to pass a policy here in Minneapolis that ensures that all workers have access to earned sick and safe time. It’s time to take the steps forward to begin to build an equitable and just Minneapolis and help address our worst-in-the-nation racial disparities. It’s the right thing to do.
Dwight Alexander is owner and operator of the Smoke Pit in Minneapolis.