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Elizabeth Kersting-Peterson listens to Candy Harshner speak on Thursday at Community Action Duluth. Harshner is the executive director of PAVSA. She spoke in support of earned sick and safe time. Mike Krebs /

Task force hears mixed opinions on earned sick and safe time

DULUTH - Cherise Payton was a single mother raising four boys, living in poverty, and she has never held a job with earned sick and safe time. She has lost jobs because of that, she said, becoming so frustrated in describing it that she stopped speaking for a moment.

She's glad her youngest has turned 18 so that she doesn't have to make the choice anymore between caring for a sick child and going to work, she said during a rally in support of earned sick and safe time on Thursday.

"If they got hurt or sick, I had to choose between taking care of them or paying my rent. I became homeless several times because of that. That's not right. People shouldn't have to choose between making an income, taking care of their families, putting food on the table or working a job because something goes on at home," she said. "I'm also a domestic violence survivor. Because I got beat at home, I couldn't go to work with a black eye and serve people food. That was embarrassing to me. But because that wasn't offered at those jobs, I continued to have to go on and make those choices for my family just to keep us out of shelters, just to keep us off the street."

The Earned Sick and Safe Time Task Force, which convened to study the issue in Duluth and provide recommendations to the Duluth City Council on a possible citywide ordinance, heard comments from both employees and employers for more than an hour at Community Action Duluth on Thursday during the last of its three listening sessions. Supporters gathered to rally before the session.

Although a majority of people spoke in favor of the city requiring companies to offer earned sick and safe time, several employers raised concerns that they would be unable to find the revenue to fund such a policy if the city mandated it, and asked that the city differentiate between small and large businesses in an ordinance.

Kelsey Johnson, who runs a small nonprofit with one other employee, said she will move her office outside of Duluth or revoke the policy she has currently in place in her office, if the city approves an ordinance. She suggested that the city approve an ordinance that is voluntary for employers, but couple it with an incentive that provides a benefit to companies that implement earned safe and sick time policies.

She said they have flexible work hours in her office, something that younger employees are increasingly requesting at workplaces. They work when work needs to be done, and her employee asks for time off when she needs it, Johnson said.

"I can't spend the time. I don't have the extra hours to put forth crafting a policy or drafting a policy and abiding by some city policy or mandate," she said.

Forty-six percent of employees in Duluth don't have earned sick and safe time, which is embarrassing, Alan Netland of the Northeast Area Minnesota Labor Council said during Thursday's rally. He said Duluth should have an ordinance that reflects its community values.

Candy Harshner, executive director of PAVSA, said earned sick and safe time is an employee's basic right. She offers it to her employees and she advocates for other employers to do the same.

Some employers argue that employees will abuse the sick-day system, but Harshner said most employers who offer time off to their employees know that isn't something that happens. Employers also say they work with an employee if something comes up for which they need time off, but Harshner said companies should have policies instead of an employee "being dependent on the goodwill of an employer" when something happens, she said. She added, "It's time for people to step up and do what's right and offer this to their employees."

Sam Madsen, an advocate at PAVSA, requested that Duluth doesn't require in an ordinance that employees provide their employer with documentation if they need more than three days of sick time, a requirement that other cities include in safe and sick time ordinances. Requiring domestic assault and sexual assault victims to disclose to their employer via documentation that they were assaulted isn't OK, especially considering that many victims don't report the assault to police or go to the emergency room, she told the task force.

Before her current job at PAVSA, Madsen spent many years working as a restaurant server whose employer had a negative view of servers calling in sick.

Restaurants often have "informal policies" that force their employees to find a co-worker to cover their shift if they are too sick to work, Madsen said during the rally before the task force's listening session on Thursday. If no one is available to work for them, the employee must come to work sick and that becomes a public health issue, she said. Those types of policies place the responsibility of staffing on the servers instead of management, she said.

"On a busy night, I could barely talk, I had a cold and my voice was almost gone. Instead of serving out in front of the house and having access with our guests, I worked in the kitchen and put together plates of food. For six hours on a Friday night, a sick person touched every plate in that restaurant, which not acceptable," she said during the rally.


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