Preparing for a Duluth City Council decree

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It was a rare and unfamiliar experience. This past Monday evening, for just a moment, I was able to see clearly and vividly into the future. It was a revelation.

What I witnessed, in that flash of clarity, was how the Duluth City Council will soon mandate that businesses based in Duluth provide paid, earned sick and safe time to employees. The council still has a few details to figure out. It will establish a community task force, comprised of representatives of various businesses and workers, which will have up to a year to make recommendations to the Council.

Yet, it was unmistakably clear, Duluth City Councilors will dictate that Duluth businesses provide this benefit to workers.

Councilors Joel Sipress and Em Westerlund appeared to be the most ardent and emphatic supporters of this decree. They coauthored a proposed amendment to unequivocally state the council's support and its intent to dictate that businesses pay this employee benefit. Councilor Sipress explicitly stated, "As far as I'm concerned, earned safe and sick time is a basic human right."

Councilor Jay Fosle was the only councilor who clearly stated his opposition to the entire paid sick and safe time initiative. He challenged his colleagues to consider the unintended consequences of requiring struggling enterprises to provide another paid benefit to workers.

Councilors Zack Filipovich and Elissa Hanson have also consistently illustrated their appreciation for the struggles this will impose on employers. These two councilors have worked hard to find a balance between employer and employee needs related to this issue. I applaud them for actively soliciting employer feedback while they concurrently work to advance the possibility of mandated paid earned sick and safe time.

I spoke at the aforementioned council meeting and implored councilors to consider the impact that their proposed obligation will have on small businesses. I shared that 490 of the Chamber's 1,116 member businesses are comprised of five or fewer employees. I challenged them to not assume that their dictate would "simply mean that these business owners would just have to get by with a little less profit."

Many of our beloved community's small business owners are struggling to stay in business while they pay their employees as much as they can and while they provide employees as many benefits as they can. Most do so because they deeply care for and about the persons they employ. For those less-caring business owners, they do so because they simply have to if they hope to attract and retain workers during this time of low unemployment.

Please recognize the council's proposed paid, earned safe and sick time for what it is: a self-imposed, unfunded government mandate. I fully support the state and federal workplace requirements that strive to ensure that all of us have a safe and healthy workplace. My fear is the council's proposed additional requirements will place Duluth-based business at a competitive disadvantage. Hermantown, Superior, Cloquet and North Shore businesses will not have this mandate.

If you are an employer in Duluth, I encourage you to stay apprised of this unfolding council initiative. Better yet, share your feedback with your city councilor. And, most certainly, prepare for mandated paid sick and safe time. Budget for it, if you can. It is coming our way courtesy of the Duluth City Council.

David Ross is the president and CEO of the Duluth Area Chamber of Commerce. Contact him at 740-3751 or dross@duluthchamber.com.