In sickness and in health: St. Paul stories

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Fatuma Ali told about her old job, running a ride at the Mall of America. “I know what it’s like not to be able to leave the job,” she said. One day she was sick. “I had to stay at my ride for five hours, while being sick in the garbage can every 30 minutes,” she recalled. She had no sick time. If she had left her job, she said, she would have been fired.

Fatuma was one of than a hundred people who packed the Earned Sick and Safe Time Task Force hearing on St. Paul’s proposed ordinance last night. More than 40 people stepped up to the microphone to tell their stories in this final public forum before the text of the proposed ordinance is released on June 23. A handful were business owners or representatives, who said that a law requiring them to give employees sick time would be an undue burden. Most were workers, telling their stories and the stories of their mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters.

The hearing was part of the process, started in February, of drafting an Earned Sick and Safe Time (ESST) ordinance to bring to the city council in August. The draft ordinance will be available online on June 23, with opportunity for public comment through July 8. The ESST Task Force recommends that all St. Paul workers have earned sick and safe time. Sick time could be used for mental or physical illness of the worker or a family member, including diagnosis and preventative care. Safe time could be used when a worker or family member is a victim of sexual assault, domestic violence or stalking. Employees would earn one hour of ESST for every 30 hours worked, up to 48 hours per year. Employees would begin accruing ESST after 80 hours on the job, and could begin using it 90 days after employment.

A few business owners, like Diane Brennan, spoke in favor of the ordinance. Brennan said she started offering paid sick and safe time to employees at her Fusion Salon on Snelling Avenue on January 1.

“Historically, independent salons have no benefits at all,” she explained. “When I first heard about earned sick and safe time a couple of years ago, I felt uncomfortable talking about an issue that pointed at me. … I wrestled with myself and after careful consideration, I wondered why I did not offer this.” She decided to change for simple reasons. First, she said, it doesn’t really cost that much. Second, she wants to keep the talent she has. She doesn’t want her workers to come in sick and spread illness to the public. “Most of all,” she said, “my values insist that I take care of my staff and their families. It is the right thing to do.”

Michele Johnson is a family nurse practitioner, whose patients have told her story after story of losing jobs after an illness. Dad gets the flu and gets sicker and sicker until he his hospitalized. A diabetic patient has a sore on his toe that becomes more and more infected until he loses the toe. A mother has a sore throat, but keeps working and the infection gets worse until it becomes an abscess on her tonsil. Patients’ emotional health suffers from lack of paid sick time, like the mother who cannot be in the hospital with her child during surgery because she cannot take time off from work. Lack of sick leave makes it difficult to get preventative care, like the patient who could not get time off for a mammogram. A year later, she had stage three breast cancer.

Deb Haugen, a nurse for thirty years, spoke in favor of the provision that would allow casual employees to earn sick and safe time. Casual employees means people like the nurses who work occasional on-call shifts at hospitals. They may be parents, she said, juggling kids and relying on casual hours to support families, or students pursuing bachelors or masters degrees. They feel lots of pressure to come to work, any time they are scheduled, regardless of illness. Some work up to 32 hours per week, but because they are casual status employees, they get no benefits now.

Mary Louise Klas, a retired Ramsey County judge, recalled being “blown away” by the sheer number of domestic violence cases she heard as a new judge. “I have seen domestic violence involve coercion, threats, intimidation, destroying property and pets, isolation, and of course physical assault,” she said. Leaving a violent home is the most dangerous time for a victim, she said: “That’s when killing occurs.” Klas said that earned safe time would protect victims of domestic violence. “Without missing work and a paycheck, a victim could have access to an advocate to have a safety plan, could seek medical care, and find a safe place.” Klas concluded: “Earned sick and safe time is not just our community’s response to domestic violence; it is homicide prevention.”

Myrna Nelson remembers working temporary or part-time jobs when her children were in school, jobs with no benefits. Now she has a job with benefits and is very grateful that when her grandson had RSV and his mother ran out of sick time, she could take time from her own job to help care for him. “I want this for every child in St. Paul,” she said. Nelson said that in grade school, she said the pledge of allegiance every day, and that pledge ended with the words “in justice for all.” Earned Sick and Safe Time for all is a matter of justice, she said. It is not justice if some are denied.

 

 

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Filed under health care, St. Paul Notes, work

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