On New Year’s Day 2018, the city of St. Paul declared that all workers within its limits could earn sick time. No longer should those queasy and contagious feel compelled to work for fear of losing pay. The announcement came with great fanfare after years of research, extensive gathering of community feedback, and a public awareness campaign.
Then high school student Ben Smith, a Como Pool lifeguard, fell ill that summer. He wanted to tap into his earned sick hours and take the day off. His immediate supervisor claimed not to know what the ordinance was. A higher-ranked Parks and Rec manager was strangely defensive and patronizing, allegedly demanding to know how Smith learned about sick time, and whether he “was the one who had called downtown” asking about it.
The manager told Smith to wait. He would be paid for his accrued hours at year’s end. When that didn’t happen, and the city staff who were supposed to enforce labor standards kept blowing him off, Smith sued St. Paul on behalf of all its part-time and seasonal workers.
He suspected it wasn’t just his pool—heavily staffed by high school kids and adults with disabilities—that ignored the law. Since serving the suit, Smith has learned that possibly 223 city employees were left in the dark about their new rights—which the city denies.
This summer Smith continued his employment with the city, this time teaching water aerobics. Meanwhile, some Parks and Rec managers allegedly circulated malicious rumors about how he’d always been a disgruntled and irresponsible employee. Smith insists he loves the job.
He’s determined to press on, even as he begins college this fall.
“I want the city to rectify what went wrong and make sure it doesn’t happen again in the future, not just for me or for the people who also work at the Como Pool, but across the whole city of St. Paul if this is happening in other departments to other part-time or seasonal workers, or kids my age,” Smith says. “And then hopefully it can extend to all businesses in St. Paul.”