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St. Paul Roundup: Family Leave Finds Voice in Online Storybook

As the 2019 session of the Minnesota Legislature neared its May 20 end date, a coalition that includes restaurant and other food industry businesses continued to call for the state to implement paid family leave. The small business group Main Street Alliance used National Small Business Week, May 5-11, as a chance to release an online storybook and to meet with Gov. Tim Walz and Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan to spotlight the issue.

The storybook features 13 Minnesota small business owners who speak to their experiences managing employees and personal medical leave. All are in support of a statewide Paid Family and Medical Leave program for small business owners and their employees. The stories, including those from restaurant and foodservice business owners, are aimed at illustrating the struggle many face.

Small business owners held a news conference on the bill May 2, and then delivered letters of support to the Jobs Conference Committee.

“This is not a brand new issue or a new cost. Leave time—scheduling and employee medical leave—is an issue we already deal with, and is one that’s very hard to budget for,” said Dan Swenson-Klatt, owner of Butter Bakery Cafe. 

“Within the last year, I have had two staff members take three weeks of paternity leave each. That’s time I wanted them to take to bond with their new babies, it was the right thing to do, and it will help me retain valuable staff members in this tight labor market we are in. However, it cost me thousands of dollars to do so,” he said. “I also have a staff member who has been on medical leave since February, and cannot afford to pay her for this time. It is not right that I’ve had to pick winners and losers—all my staff should have access to paid leave.”

Sarah Piepenburg, owner of Vinaigrette, shared her experience. “Last year, one of my most valuable employees fell and broke both arms. She was out for 10 weeks, and we made sure she was paid, but because of it, we couldn’t afford our own expenses. My family fell behind on our house payment,” she said. 

“I have testified on this bill several times, and have been told by some legislators to find short-term disability alternatives on the private market. It’s frustrating. The smaller the business, the more expensive those plans are and the less power you have to negotiate rates,” she said. “And in most cases,  they wouldn’t even provide the coverage our employees need.”

The idea of paid family and medical leave is supported by the Walz administration. How it fares in conference committee remains to be seen, as the proposal enjoyed more support from the DFL than from Republicans. Small business owners have testified this session about the difficulty they have had in retaining good employees, who can get better benefits from larger corporations. That is especially true for foodservice businesses. Several small food production, restaurant and bakery owners have said their workers develop specific skill sets that take time to hone. When those employees go elsewhere for better benefits, that starts the training process all over again.

The pending legislation would be for businesses of all sizes, and would provide a base from which to build their family and medical leave benefit. It would create a pool employers would pay into and be able to draw from.

The storybook can be found at https://bit.ly/2GXdN7h

St. Paul Restaurant Roundup

Two of St. Paul’s remaining “blue laws” are no more, as a result of St. Paul City Council action April 17. Liquor can now be sold within 300 feet of religious institutions throughout the city. In the downtown area, liquor can be sold within 300 feet of a school. The sales apply to restaurants with on-sale liquor licenses and liquor stores.

The changes, which won unanimous city council approval, strike down regulations that have been in place since the 1960s.

Schools and places of worship have long had the ability to veto on-sale liquor licenses or liquor stores that are within 300 feet of their locations. Requests made for licenses within the 300-foot zone also needed at least five of seven city council votes for approval.

The changes didn’t draw public comment, and no one attended public hearings earlier in April to speak for or against the changes.

Ward Two Council Member Rebecca Noecker brought the changes forward. She said the changes and other regulatory issues she is working on will help make it easier for downtown businesses to operate.

Another change is one the city has to make. The liquor regulation focused on places of worship removes city legislative code language that has been found to be unconstitutional.

The changes came forward after a disagreement between the Gray Duck Tavern at Wabasha and Fourth Street and the St. Paul Conservatory for the Performing Arts, a charter school at 16 W. Fifth St. The liquor license for Gray Duck was approved in 2017 after an extensive building renovation. Charter school officials objected in December 2018, noting that they hadn’t been asked to weigh in on the matter. School officials asked the city to suspend liquor sales at the restaurant. The city declined to do so.

The school has operated at its downtown location since 2013. It is in the same building as the Pazzaluna restaurant and is within a short distance of other restaurants with liquor licenses.

The new regulations indicated that schools within the downtown business district will still be notified if a liquor license holder is moving in. Schools still can raise concerns about a liquor license.

The Russian Tea House, a University Avenue staple for four decades, closed the first weekend of May. A long line of customers stood outside to buy frozen bags of piroshki, quarts of stroganoff, borscht and Napoleon tortes. And, of course, everyone was offered one more cup of tea.

Owners Nikolai and Linda Alenov have battled health issues, and Nikolai recently had heart surgery.

Fitzgerald’s, one of Cathedral Hill’s newer spots, closed the first weekend of May. It will be renovated and reopen in late summer as The Fitz, with a focus on pizzas by Chef Graham Messenger.

This will be the restaurant’s third incarnation. It opened a few years ago as Salt Cellar, under the leadership of the Eagle Street Grill group. Madison Group then purchased the business and it was transformed into Fitzgerald’s.

The former Espresso Royale in the Macalester-Groveland neighborhood is being transformed into an Italian eatery. i.e. Italian Eatery’s Eric and Vanessa Carrerra are turning the building into a place to get a sit-down meal, beer, wine, a cocktail or food to go. Pasta, sandwiches, charcuterie and more will be offered. Look for a walk-up window. Dué Focacceria will open in the months ahead.

The Tim Hortons on Wabasha Street has closed, along with several other Tim Hortons units in the Twin Cities.

 Taste of Thailand has reopened in Merriam Park neighborhood, under new management. 

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