Report: Minnesota’s biggest cities lead in advancing worker rights

By: - June 13, 2022 4:16 pm

People gather together to ask the McDonald’s corporation to raise workers wages to a $15 minimum wage as well as demanding the right to a union on May 23, 2019 in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images.

While the federal government in recent years has fallen down on the job of protecting workers’ rights and improving the fortunes of low-income workers, cities like Minneapolis, St. Paul and Duluth are increasingly leading the way.

That’s according to a new report published Monday by the Economic Policy Institute, the Harvard Labor and Worklife Program and Local Progress

Take the minimum wage: The federal government’s minimum wage has been stuck at $7.25 an hour since 2009, but dozens of cities across the country including Minneapolis and St. Paul have forged ahead with plans for a $15 an hour minimum wage.

Cities have also moved ahead with enacting and enforcing new labor standards, which has historically been the domain of states and the federal government. The Twin Cities and Duluth have new laws ensuring workers receive paid sick leave, and Minneapolis has ordinances aimed at protecting some of the most vulnerable workers like independent contractors and adult entertainers.

Here’s how Minnesota’s large cities are advancing workers’ rights:

Cities can force up wages

Starting July 1, companies in Minneapolis with more than 100 employees will have to pay their workers at least $15 an hour — a rate that will then increase with inflation each year starting in January. Smaller companies will have to pay at least $13.50 an hour starting July 1 and match the minimum wage for large businesses by 2024.

Minimum wage workers at MSP Airport, which is governed by the Metropolitan Airports Commission, will also get a raise to $15 an hour starting July 1.

In St. Paul, the city will begin paying its employees at least $15 an hour starting on July 1, while large companies will be required to follow suit starting next July and smaller companies in 2025.

The minimum wages in both cities put low-wage workers far beyond Minnesota’s minimum wage of $10.33 an hour for companies with gross revenues greater than $500,000 a year, and $8.42 for smaller companies.

The $15 an hour minimum wage marks the completion of a yearslong effort beginning with the “Fight for 15” campaign in 2012.

Local governments have also raised the minimum wage for their own workers, which can help nudge private employers to follow suit. Last year, the Hennepin County Board voted to immediately raise the minimum wage for its employees to $20 an hour. The White Earth Nation also raised the minimum for tribal employees to $16 an hour last year, which increased the minimum wage for non-tipped workers by 50%.

Women and Black people are more likely to work for state and local governments, the report’s authors note, meaning increasing wages has an outsized effect on closing the yawning pay disparities between women and Black earners and their white and Asian-American counterparts.

Cities can improve benefits and working conditions 

In addition to minimum wages, Minneapolis, St. Paul and Duluth have ordinances requiring companies to provide workers with paid sick leave. City leaders in Bloomington also passed a sick leave ordinance in June, which takes effect July 2023.

Minneapolis is one of just a few cities with a law on the books protecting freelancers and independent contractors. Since Jan. 1, 2021, businesses are required to provide written contracts that detail how much freelancers will earn for their work and how much they will be paid. The law aims to provide protection to a class of workers who are not often covered by employment law, according to the report’s authors.

Other cities have gone further to improve working conditions by enacting so-called “fair scheduling” rules that require employers to provide predictable schedules with adequate rest time in between shifts. Eight cities — including Chicago, New York and Philadelphia — have passed such laws, according to the report.

Minneapolis city leaders considered a fair scheduling ordinance in 2015 but ultimately rejected it. State Democrats have also tried unsuccessfully to pass a similar proposal at the state level, but lawmakers have been stymied by the GOP-controlled state Senate. .

Minneapolis is also exceptional in its protections for adult entertainers. Under an ordinance passed in 2019, adult businesses must give workers copies of their contracts and post rules for customer contact and workers’ rights. The rule also requires businesses to have security cameras monitoring all areas where customers and entertainers interact and provide security escorts to entertainers.

Cities can enforce labor laws 

Labor violations like wage theft are rarely enforced, even as Minnesota lawmakers have ramped up both penalties for employers and investigatory resources. Because of their limited resources, the state’s Department of Labor and Industry focus on large, high-profile cases, which means numerous small complaints aren’t investigated.

Minneapolis, St. Paul and Duluth all have staff dedicated to monitor and enforce the city’s labor ordinances, which can help fill in the gap.

Minneapolis created a labor standards division in 2016 — with five full-time staff — to enforce its paid sick and safe time, minimum wage, wage theft and freelance worker protection laws.

Since 2018, the city of Minneapolis has recovered more than $500,000 in back wages and damages for workers through 65 settlements with companies, including 51 settlements related to violations of the city’s paid sick leave requirement, according to city spokeswoman Sarah McKenzie. The city has settled with companies ranging from a fast-food restaurant to a clothing store to a gas station.

Saint Paul has collected more than $24,000 in restitution from 10 settlements for employees for violations of the city’s earned sick time ordinance, according to a St. Paul spokesman.

Minneapolis and St. Paul have also created advisory committees made up of workers and employers to advise lawmakers on new policies and implementation.

*This story has been corrected to reflect that Bloomington city leaders passed a sick leave ordinance earlier this month.

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Max Nesterak
Max Nesterak

Max Nesterak is the deputy editor of the Reformer and reports on labor and housing. Most recently he was an associate producer for Minnesota Public Radio after a stint at NPR. He also co-founded the Behavioral Scientist and was a Fulbright Scholar to Berlin, Germany.

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