Rode Hard and Put Away Wet: Duluth considers a law requiring employers to provide paid sick leave

February 25, 2018


Jennifer Martin-Romme
Zenith News

You have to be off three days before you get sick time...without pay.
They only give paid sick time to managers and supervisors.
I have sick time due to a union contract. However, my employer closely scrutinizes sick time use and many employees are afraid to use it and face investigation or discipline.

These were a few of the responses to an online employee survey that ran from February through May 2017, published by a task force convened by the Duluth City Council to study the issue of requiring local employers to provide paid sick leave.

“It’s not a perk; it’s a right,” says Councilor Em Westerlund. “The nature of our local economy, the businesses don’t offer that. They traditionally haven’t been good about providing those benefits to their workers.”

Westerlund, as well as task force co-chair Angie Miller, cite the employee survey results that nearly 40 percent of respondents don’t have access to paid sick time.


However, the survey data should be taken with a very large grain of salt. It’s completely unscientific; no statistical measures were applied and it’s riddled with sampling error. According to the employer version of the same survey, 90 percent of Duluth businesses—most of whom said they are in the hospitality industry—offer paid sick leave.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 72 percent of employees nationwide have paid sick leave, but with wide discrepancies along variables like the type of industry. Only 51 percent of service and hospitality workers, for example, have any type of paid leave at all.

Full-time employees are significantly more likely to have paid sick time (84 percent), and wages are highly predictive: 91 percent of the top 10 percent of wage-earners have paid sick time, compared to only 31 percent of the bottom 10 percent of wage-earners, regardless of whether they work full-time. Even among regions of the country, the Midwest has the lowest rates of paid sick time—67 percent, compared to 83 on the West Coast.

In May 2016, the Institute for Women’s Policy Research issued a position paper estimating that 46 percent of Duluth workers lack paid sick leave, by extrapolating federal data to Duluth’s demographics—a methodology made even more dubious by the fact that their most frequently cited data source was themselves.

But for proponents of a city ordinance requiring some sort of accrued paid sick time benefit, number-crunching isn’t really the point.

“There’s a cost to not having it,” says Miller. “There’s a whole sector of our workforce kept below 32 hours a week [to prevent them from qualifying for benefits], and it’s not just businesses. There are non-profits that do it, too.

“Somebody came and spoke to [the task force] who had gone in to work with MRSA. We heard about kids missing school to take care of siblings because their parents have no days off work...I had breast cancer in 2016. Why do people think employees don’t get sick?”

We have productivity standards that make it hard to be gone without getting written up or falling behind. Without making could mean I’m fired. How do you get well while being stressed?
People go to work and are serving or preparing food and they should not be, but due to needing the staff, they come in.
You feel obligated to tell them what you are sick with or they start a rumor mill that you’re faking.
Sick time is a “benefit,” but it’s expected that I will make up the time I missed later in the week.

“The US is the only wealthy country in the world that doesn’t provide this,” says City Councilor Joel Sipress. “But state and federal governments are not responsive, so communities are asking their local governments to do it...This effort really came from the community.”

The proposal was brought to the City Council in May 2016 by Vision Duluth, a coalition of 10 local agencies, organized by the liberal non-profit Take Action Minnesota. The Council voted to seat a task force to study the issue, gather input, and make recommendations.

The task force members included:

•Angie Miller (co-chair), Executive Director of
Community Action Duluth;
•Laura Weintraub (co-chair), lawyer and proprietor of
AimClear Marketing;
•Tony Boen, Director Of Operations at Grandma’s;
•Brenda Denton, a lawyer who owns her own firm;
•Mary Faulkner, Site Coordinator at the Program for
Aid to Victims of Sexual Assault (PAVSA)
•Arik Forsman, Regional Development Representative
at Minnesota Power;
•Theresa O’Halloran Johnson, St. Louis County Health
and Human Services and union steward for Local 66;   
•Chad Ronchetti, a GIS Specialist at Burns &
McDonnell Engineering;
•Terese Tomanek, a chaplain at Woodland Hills;
•Kathryn Wegner, a retired nurse; and
•Stephan Witherspoon, President of the local NAACP.

The task force was ready to make recommendations last fall, right before the election. But that’s when Chamber of Commerce President David Ross decided to play what Westerlund characterizes as a “game of chicken.”

The referendum for a half-cent sales tax to pay for street repairs was on the ballot, and Ross—who did not respond to multiple calls seeking comment—threatened to pull the Chamber’s support for the sales tax if the City Council wouldn’t agree to postpone releasing the task force recommendations until after the election.

“I thought it was terrible!” says Miller. “The citizens of Duluth voted in favor of this! Then after it overwhelmingly passed, the Chamber said they still wouldn’t support the tax in St. Paul if things proceeded with ESST [Earned Sick and Safe Time].”

“I got a message from the mayor to delay it,” says Sipress, who was council president at the time. “I told the mayor I would consult with the councilors, but almost no one came to the agenda-setting meeting.”

Asked which councilors showed up, Sipress demurred that he “can’t remember...I just had to make the best decision I could”—he agreed to delay the presentation.

Back in the summer of 2017, Ross was in a hurry to get the task force’s report, telling the Duluth News Tribune, “Only recently has this seemed to have gained the attention of many of our very busy business community members and organizations, and the level of alarm and angst is growing exponentially...It’s my hope that [the task force] will complete their work and forward their recommendations early enough that this council can consider action prior to any change in the council happening.”

As the election approached, Ross’ tone became more pugnacious, threatening to “rise up in opposition...if earned sick and safe time goes through.”

Even after getting his way with the mayor and City Council, Ross was no less ornery. “[The sales tax] will be dead in St. Paul if not for the business community’s support. So the mayor has to say, ‘Is earned sick and safe time worth jeopardizing this 25-year streets initiative?’”

In late January, the Chamber finally backed down, voting to support the sales tax.

“It was unfortunate,” says Sipress, “but we’ve moved forward from there. I think everyone understands that there’s going to be an Earned Sick and Safe Time policy.”

“They continue to oppose ESST,” says Westerlund, “but they’re no longer playing chicken...It’s unclear to me how they’re so sure they can’t afford it when we don’t even know what it would be. We don’t have a proposal yet.”

What the hell is safe time?
I’m not sure what safe time at work would be. My workplace is already safe.
I know I don’t get it because I don’t even know what it is.

“Safe time” allows victims of intimate partner violence or sexual assault to take time off work to attend court hearings, medical exams, meetings with attorneys or law enforcement, etc. A program coordinator at PAVSA, Westerlund is passionate about keeping this aspect of paid leave in the forefront. “To bring awareness to the fact that this is an issue in our community, [and] so they can’t be reprimanded [for using it]...It needs to be codified.”

Both Westerlund and Sipress favor a policy that does not require the employee to disclose their illness or specific need, which is particularly important with safe time. A victim may not want her boss to know that she’s meeting with the police to discuss the results of her rape kit, or that she needs to attend a court hearing on the restraining order she filed against her ex-husband.

“I think we’re going to have this [law],” says Miller. “And I think the Chamber knows it will happen...The two big sticking points are how many employees [before the business is required to offer it], and how many days you can accrue at what rate...It’s like the smoking ban. They acted like the sky was falling, but no one moved to Superior. No one went out of business over it.”

Make Your Voice Heard! ESST Community Listening Session, Monday, February 26, 5:45 p.m., Third Floor Council Chamber, Duluth City Hall 



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