Duluth workers win safe and sick time ordinance

July 2018 Duluth city council

Supporters of the sick and safe time ordinance attend a standing-room-only Duluth city council meeting. (Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune)

By ADAM RITSCHER

— DULUTH, Minn. — On May 29, by a vote of 7 to 1, the Duluth City Council passed an “Earned Safe and Sick Time” ordinance. The new law mandates that all business owners in the city give their workers time off when they are sick and need time off for other pressing personal matters. The law was passed after a long and hard-fought battle, spearheaded by a coalition of union and community activists.

Frustrated by stagnant wages and the rising cost of living, working people across the country are demanding change. Yet our country’s “leaders” continue to concern themselves with nothing but the enrichment of the wealthy elites. Out of desperation, some activists are turning to local initiatives, like municipal minimum-wage laws, earned safe and sick time mandates, and other similar projects. However, wherever these local initiatives have been attempted, they have been met by fierce opposition, including some states’ passing laws banning the right of municipalities to even take up these kinds of issues.

Such was the case in Duluth. Activists were able to mobilize an impressive amount of community support in support of the demand for the safe and sick time mandate. This mobilization compelled the city council to set up a task force to hold public hearings on the matter, and make a recommendation. At these hearings several dozen low-wage workers testified about having to come in sick or lose out on pay—often with heart-breaking consequences.

When the task force ended up proposing the city pass an ordinance allowing workers to earn one hour of paid time off for every 30 hours worked, the city’s business community had an allergic reaction. Opposition was in particular spearheaded by a number of prominent businesses like Grandma’s Restaurants and St. Luke’s Hospital. Initially, despite the obvious falsehood of it, they claimed that almost all Duluth businesses already had earned safe and sick time. They later retreated to the odd claim that it would be too complicated to keep track of the hours worked. After neither of these flimsy ploys gained any traction, the business elite resigned themselves to the law’s being passed, and instead focused their efforts on pleading with the city council to make it as weak as possible.

In this, unfortunately, the Democratic Party-dominated city council was all to eager to comply. It is claimed that this is the most progressive collection of city councilors the city has ever had. But if that is the case, it says something quite unflattering about what “progressive” means in the Democratic Party. Despite the overwhelming popular support for the task force’s proposals, the council voted again and again to whittle away at them. In doing so they dragged out the process for several months.

They voted to exempt businesses based on seasonal workers, as well as those with less than five workers. Given Duluth’s tourism-based economy, tragically, this eliminated a large number of workers. However, the biggest setback was the slashing of the number of hours a worker has to work before getting one hour of paid sick time. The council voted first to water it down from 30 to 1, to 40 to 1. Then, they voted to cut it to 50 to 1.

This proposal was defeated after workers filled the council chamber on the day of the vote. However, at the following council meeting, a small coterie of well-dressed business owners appeared to ask the councilors to reconsider. Determined to seize defeat from the jaws of victory, the council accepted their request, and voted by a large majority to re-vote on the 50 to 1 proposed formula, which this time passed. It was in this watered-down form that they finally voted to enact the Earned Safe and Sick Time ordinance.

The end result is, nevertheless, a gain for working people in Duluth. Thousands of workers will now finally have at least limited access to paid time off to deal with health and family emergencies. But this could have been, and should have been, a much bigger win. The city council’s capitulation is inexcusable. We salute the hundreds of workers and activists who fought so hard for this, and we will remember the unfortunate actions of the city councilors.