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In St. Paul, a paid sick leave debate with business' backing

Matt Zanetti, owner of Lake Monster Brewing, does not want sick brewers working on his beer.

Matt Zanetti, owner of Lake Monster Brewing, does not want sick brewers working on his beer.

Nearly one year ago, when Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges proposed a series of labor reforms called the Working Families Agenda, the small business community raised a firestorm of opposition that ultimately killed the proposal and dumped Hodges at the mercy of social justice advocates who blamed her for giving up the fight.

The problem with the Working Families Agenda seemed to be that it wanted to do one too many things at once.

The initial proposal required that employers offer paid leave and finalize workers’ schedules one month in advance or suffer strict penalties. Business owners took it to mean that policymakers were tone-deaf to their pressures.

It was the scheduling part that really scared the business community, said Corinne Horowitz of the Main Street Alliance of Minnesota, a network of socially progressive small businesses. So when the St. Paul city council started talking about adopting its own paid leave ordinance in February – without extra scheduling or wage issues rolled in – business owners have been largely on board.

St. Paul proposes that workers earn one hour of sick leave for every 30 hours worked, and that small businesses that already have their own systems for letting employees take paid time off without fear of losing their jobs should be able to keep doing what they’re doing.

Many businesses in St. Paul have their own ways of accommodating sick workers, Horowitz says, so they have no problem with the city forcing corporate chains like McDonalds and Subway to do the same.

Last week, entrepreneurs representing some 40 businesses -- including Ward 6 Food and Drink, 6th Chamber Used Books, Mid-Continent Oceanographic Institute, and Lake Monster Brewing -- gathered at Workhorse Coffee to ask city council for yes votes.

But there are a few outspoken owners who just don’t want the government telling them what to do, Horowitz says.

 “This is a new labor law, so I think with any new kind of labor law, there’s still going to be opposition,” she says. “It was the same when minimum wage and the child labor law was passed. Paid sick leave is becoming that new standard of what work should look like.”

Michael Schumann, owner of 29-year-old Traditions furniture store, says it’s a bit more complicated than that. If one of his sales reps gets sick, everyone else gladly shuffles around their schedules to keep the ship afloat. When that employee gets better, he or she gets to make up the hours. That kind of flexibility is preferable to mandatory sick time when you’re working on commission, Schumann says. 

Schumann spoke against paid sick leave during a recent public hearing. He argued that while business owners running a single store in St. Paul may not have to adjust to too much change, folks who own 20 stores across the metro could find themselves juggling slightly different sets of regulations on the same thing – an administrative nightmare that takes time away from actually running the business.

St. Paul and Minneapolis will have parity on sick leave rules, but Schumann would rather have a state-wide statute so suburban furniture stores don’t receive an unfair advantage over his.

Still, he doesn’t see any of this preventing the city council from passing paid sick leave on August 24.

“My gut feeling is it’s gonna pass, but the devil’s in the details, and that’s where we’re coming from,” Schumann says. “I don’t think the business community has a huge issue with it passing. Most business people I know, they’re willing to be reasonable and implement this for their regular employees. Part of valuing your employees is you to make sure that when they’re sick, they have time to get well and remain your employees because when you have a good employee, you don’t wanna lose them. It’s just that simple.”