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Minneapolis mulls paid sick time for all workers

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David Amundson, owner of TreHus Architects
David Amundson, owner of TreHus Architects, speaks Friday against a proposed Minneapolis ordinance mandating all businesses in the city provide employees with paid sick leave.
Curtis Gilbert | MPR News

Business owners packed a meeting room in Minneapolis' city hall Friday morning, wanting their voices heard.

The group had scored a major victory just a few days earlier, when Mayor Betsy Hodges withdrew a proposal to regulate the work schedules of private businesses. 

But they're maintaining the pressure on City Hall as it considers a proposal guaranteeing paid sick leave for all workers in Minneapolis. 

David Amundson, who owns TreHus, an architecture and construction firm with about 20 employees, said he'd prefer that the city stay out of workplace issues altogether.

"Overall, I just don't believe it's really the role of the city council to be doing these things," he said. "If they're going to be done, they should be done at the state level."

Amundson already offers employees paid time off, in the form of vacation and holidays, but he's worried he'll have to provide more if the mandatory sick time proposal becomes law. 

Trehus governs paid time off with a use-it-or-lose-it policy. Under the city's draft proposal, workers would be able to accrue between five and nine sick days — depending on the size of the company they work for — and carry them over from year to year. Amundson says that would create accounting headaches.

"A lot of small businesses do their own bookeeping," he said. "I happen to have a financial person, but we didn't for years. And it's an accounting burden to do that. And it's a cost to the company. If you happen to be so fortunate to maybe sell your company, it's a liability against your company year after year."

Data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics show about 60 percent of U.S. workers have access to paid sick time. Those without it tend to be part-time, low-income or work in the service industry.

Advocates for the working poor are keeping the pressure on policy makers, too. Hundreds of them held a demonstration Thursday, demanding that city leaders revive the scheduling ordinance and pass the sick leave mandate.

Lennox Thornswood is a volunteer with Working America, an affiliate of the AFL-CIO. She said she used to work for a big-box retailer, and would come to work sick, because she couldn't afford to stay home.

"There were often times I would go into work, and in the middle of my shift, I would have to run to the bathroom with my hand over my mouth, because I thought I was going to throw up in the middle of the store," she said.

Research shows people without paid sick time are more likely to come into work when they're not feeling well. A study from the Minnesota Department of Health found an average of 300 stomach flu cases a year caused by ill restaurant staff. Restaurant workers rarely have access to paid sick time.

City Council member Andrew Johnson said Minneapolis takes the concerns of businesses seriously. But he's optimistic about finding a compromise.

"I think we can come up with something that's reasonable, and that's ultimately going to be good for the economy, for businesses and for our workers in the city," he said.

Sick leave mandates have been popping up around the country in recent years. Four states, 19 cities and one county have already passed such requirements.