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Minneapolis poised to pass paid sick leave over bitter but waning opposition

Afro Deli's employee appreciation holiday party

Afro Deli's employee appreciation holiday party

Last spring, Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges swung for an ambitious set of labor reforms to help the city’s working families. She struck out in the face of blistering dissent from small-business owners, who warned that the Working Families Agenda would force many of them to close for good.

Giving employees paid sick leave and advance notice of work schedules simply wasn’t compatible with the demands of the restaurant industry, they said.

Hodges backed down on fair scheduling and got pummeled by labor organizations, but she promised to study paid sick leave to see if Minneapolis could reach a compromise. The city appointed a 19-member advisory group of employers and workers to look into how other cities across the country have dealt with mandated sick leave, and convened a series of public hearings spanning the past few months. The city council will finally vote on Friday.

And council members will probably vote yes. This time around, the outrage from the small-business crowd is much less severe. Though Hodges initially wanted even mom-and-pop shops with four or more employees to provide paid sick leave, the current proposal will grant an exemption to any business with fewer than six. Workers will have to earn their sick leave with time worked: one hour of leave for every 30 on the job for a maximum of 48 – or six full days – a year.

Plus, there’s just no good way for a restaurant owner to publicly insist that sickly workers with their noses running from the flu continue to make burgers for people.

“As a small-business owner I believe you have to be socially responsible,” says Abdirahman Kahin, a member of the sick leave advisory group and owner of Afro Deli. “For me, it’s not about the money, but the relationship with my employees. Of course it costs, but it will show that we appreciate our staff.”

Kahin owns two Afro Delis, one on the West Bank and one in St. Paul. He has 29 staff in total, whom he’s always paid even if they or their family members get sick and they request a day off. In his five years in business, no one’s ever taken advantage of the policy, he says.

“When you’re a small business and you care about [your employees], they will be understanding what you can afford, so they will be honest when they are sick,” Kahin says. “If they know that you care about them, then they will care about you.”

Rebecca Illingworth, owner of Tinto – Cocina + Cantina, also pays her employees when they have to go on leave. One was gone for two months, another for a week. Both were paid in full, and got their jobs back when they were ready to return to work. With only a dozen people on staff, Tinto is like a family, Illingworth says. Still, she is a staunch opponent of the sick leave ordinance.

“Rarely does someone call in. When someone does, we find a replacement for him or her because unlike an office job, customers still need to be tended to and we cannot be a person short,” Illingworth says. “If the Working Families Agenda gets put in place, I will need to pay for their hourly rate during their absence, and that of the person that works for him or her.”

Illingworth has a Change.org petition to “stop mandated unionization so we do not become Minnesota, land of 10,000 corporate chains.” The goal is to reach 5,000 signatures. So far, only 54 people have signed.

Illingworth says she doesn’t hate the merits of paid sick leave – just the fact that too many minority business owners weren’t notified of the city’s work on the ordinance over the past three months. City documents weren’t translated or distributed into wards with strong Latino, Somali, and Hmong communities until the last minute, she says.

Illingworth, a Mexican-American and a single mother, says she’s been ignored by her own councilwoman, Lisa Bender, when she asked that the city raise the minimum number of employees for affected businesses be raised to 50, the same threshold in place for health insurance under Obamacare.

“One Somali woman stated she offices in the same building as Elizabeth Glidden, sees her every day, and she never mentioned a word,” Illingworth says. “Another Mexican gentleman said he donated campaign funds to Alondra Cano and sees her often. Same thing, she never mentioned a word.”

“The reality is that most small businesses in the wards lead by Glidden, Bender, and Cano are owned by people of color, their employees mostly people of color. Average incomes for many small-business owners are low to medium. Putting these small businesses out of business, is going to be detrimental to those they claim to want to help.”

Kahin agrees that the city dropped the ball on translating the plans and informing everyone about what was happening. He says the process is improving. And he’s optimistic that other Somali business owners will ultimately support the ordinance.

“We have to look at what would be the most beneficial, the few businesses, or the thousands of Somalis who work for the small businesses,” he says. “Six days, that’s something that’s fair to everyone.”