Mpls workers empowered by new sick leave law

Ron Harris
Ron Harris Photo courtesy of Neighborhood

The new Minneapolis “sick and safe time” leave law doesn’t take effect until next year, but proponents have called its passage “a shift in power.” Mayor Betsy Hodges on June 1 signed it into law after the city council passed it on May 27. Minneapolis becomes the 27th U.S. city, and the first in the Midwest, to expand paid sick time to most workers in the city.

All employees — exempt, non-exempt, part-time or temporary workers within the city limits who have worked at least 80 hours a year — starting July 1, 2017 can accrue a minimum of one hour of “sick and safe leave” for every 30 hours worked, up to 48 hours in a calendar or fiscal year. Employees can carry any unused sick time from year to year, and the law applies to all businesses with six or more employees — those businesses with five or fewer workers must provide unpaid sick time.

Workers can use sick time either for their own health or preventive care or for the following:

  • to care for a sick family member
  • a domestic abuse, sexual assault or stalking incident
  • a child’s school closing because of weather or other unexpected closure
  • a business closing due to health reasons

Furthermore, employers are prohibited from retaliating against employees by using their sick leave.

It’s a historic win, noted former Neighborhoods Organizing for Change (NOC) Community Organizer Ron Harris in a June 2 MSR phone interview. “What we did I think is set a precedent now for how progressive change actually can happen.”

Harris said that he personally got involved in the paid sick leave issue in December 2014: “It was the only thing I did for 18 months. It was my main job,” he said proudly, adding that it was a personal mission as well. When he was an infant his mother lost her job due to taking care of him during a life-threatening illness. At the time, she didn’t have sick leave at her job for taking care of her child, he pointed out.

He and others at NOC, along with other local organizations, fought against seemingly long odds, recalled Harris. “When we were advocating for this, big business was lining up (in opposition) and hired lobbyists and PR firms and used a lot of money to try and beat this,” he explained. Some opponents used the “They should work hard and get a better job” approach, while other opponents claimed that small-business workers, if they got sick time, would misuse it.

“Executives use excuses when they take [time] off,” continued Harris. “There was an assumption that if we give these rights [to workers], all of a sudden they are going to abuse these rights.”

Racial aspects of this issue were also brought up, especially since most low-wage workers in Minneapolis are Blacks and other people of color, workers who often can’t afford to miss work and see an already short paycheck get shorter as a result. But Harris noted that NOC intentionally made sure that race was in the forefront of the paid sick time discussion.

“We intentionally talked about it as a racial equity issue because we know that the people most likely not to have paid sick time and other workplace protections are Black and Brown people, and majority Black and Brown women,” said Harris. “Race is a conversation in our city now.”

A yearlong David vs. Goliath campaign included forums, marches and rallies. At least 70 persons last month testified for the measure at a city council meeting, showing support for it prior to the vote.

“We were successful in changing the narrative,” stated Harris. “We wanted a worker-centered focus, a focus on low-wage workers and workers of color, etc., to be the ones pushing on this. It was their voices and their stories that got us over the edge.

“One big factor I think is being lost is not that the law itself is a monumental law, but what is not being talked about is the shift of power,” reiterated Harris. “Workers now have more power on the job site. It’s people power that won. Organizing won. Storytelling won.”

Tyrone Spencer of Minneapolis was among those workers who told his story. He told the MSR that he’d wished the new city sick leave ordinance existed a few years ago. “I lost my job three years ago [at a local fast food restaurant] because my manager didn’t want me to leave [before completing his shift],” he explained. “I had to check myself into the hospital [for a personal medical emergency]. I was there for three days.

“When I came back [to work], I went from training to be a manager to part time,” continued Spencer. When he later complained to corporate management, the site manager retaliated against him, and eventually he left the job. “I could’ve used [the new law] back then, and I’m sure a lot of other people could have” as well, he said.

Spencer supports the new ordinance: “It will help everybody in Minneapolis and their families,” he said.

“Minneapolis took the first big step” in passing the paid sick leave law, but it is needed statewide as well, surmised Harris. “I’m proud of the fact that 120,000 people who didn’t have access to paid sick time now will, but there are hundreds of thousands more people across the state” who need this as well. These workers include small business janitors, part-time employees, and fast food workers. “When you’re part time, you actually don’t get any protection,” Harris pointed out.

“It was a long process,” said Harris. “We made sure that workers are empowered and made sure protections are set up” in the new ordinance.

 

Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to challman@spokesman-recorder.com.