DNT Editorial on Sick and Safe Time

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The following editorial appeared in the Duluth News Tribune on November 15th

View the Duluth News Tribune Article here.


In May, the Duluth City Council approved a sick-and-safe-time ordinance without having any idea whatsoever how much it might cost taxpayers.

Worse, as Mayor Emily Larson revealed in an interview this week with the News Tribune Editorial Board, no city councilor even asked her or her administration about potential costs.

“That did not happen,” Larson said.

Now we know the cost — at least initially. The mayor included $140,000 in her 2019 budget proposal for a less-than-full-time point person to oversee the ordinance’s enforcement, including reaching out to and educating business operators about its requirements, responding to concerns and complaints, and preparing printed educational materials. An earned sick and safe time coordinator is to be hired by the second quarter of next year under the proposed budget and in accordance with a city timeline for implementation. The ordinance goes into effect Jan. 1, 2020.

The proposed $140,000 allocation would come from the city’s general fund, meaning it’s money that could be spent otherwise on things like public safety, fixing streets, plowing snow, treating our drinking water, and more.

And while Duluth taxpayers can hope fewer tax dollars will be needed in coming years, as the requirement to provide paid sick days for employees becomes entrenched and less city oversight is needed, it seems at least as likely that costs will only rise. Consider Minneapolis, where doubling the number of full-time city workers who enforce a similar ordinance, from three to six, has been proposed.

The debate in Duluth over spending public tax dollars to enforce a city law that 90 percent of businesses already are in compliance with, according to a 2017 city survey, was a heated one. But it has been settled, Mayor Larson said. The focus now can be on responsible enforcement, she said.

“We make a mistake if we don’t staff it well. Then I think we detract. Then it’s complicated and chaotic,” said Larson. “(Having) one point of contact makes it consistent and fluid; that provides a reliability that our biz community has told me they need, especially as it relates to policies that get passed at the political level. …

“We’re going to do it right,” she continued, “and we’re basing it on what we’ve learned has happened in other communities, where it’s gone really well and where it’s gone off the rails.”

The city’s hunt for best practices has included an internal working group, “significant research,” and visits to Minneapolis and St. Paul to study their enforcement, City Clerk Chelsea Helmer said in an interview with the News Tribune Opinion page, also this week.

“We’ve already tracked our timeline for implementation,” Helmer said. “We greatly understand this is going to impact the business community. And we know that if you’re a business, you’re planning a year in advance. So we’re doing the same thing.”

Yes, workers in Duluth should be able to bank paid days off to use when they or a loved one are sick or when there’s an emergency. But with most workers in Duluth already able to do that, spending $140,000 to enforce an unnecessary new city mandate — tax money that could be better spent on core services — is $140,000 too much.