A class-action lawsuit filed two years ago by Merriam Park high school student Benjamin Smith, who worked for the city of Saint Paul as a lifeguard, is one step closer to being resolved. The City Council approved a $360,000 settlement on December 1 involving 480 summer aquatics workers who claimed the city violated its own policy on earned sick and safe time.

The settlement now goes to Ramsey County District Court to be finalized. The process is expected to wrap up sometime in 2022, and those involved will receive a one-time payment. The proposed settlement states that the city denies violating the ordinance “in any way.”

The lawsuit involves seasonal and part-time employees who worked for the Department of Parks and Recreation aquatics division from January 1, 2017, to May 24, 2019. Under the settlement, the city would pay $200,000 in legal fees and an additional $4,000 to Smith. The others eligible for the settlement will split $156,000, though they can also opt out and file their own legal actions. The amounts paid to each person would be based on time worked for the city and the value of time accrued.

Smith’s father, Mark, who is an attorney, filed the lawsuit. “It’s unfortunate and it’s somewhat unbelievable that it’s taken this long for us to get to this point,” his father said, “but we were basically stonewalled at every point.”

The 16-page settlement spells out the case history. Earned sick and safe time was approved by the City Council in 2016 to ensure that workers across Saint Paul can meet their health needs and those of their families. City workers were covered as of January 1, 2017, while private businesses were phased in by size. 

“It’s unfortunate and it’s somewhat unbelievable that it’s taken this long for us to get to this point,” said Benjamin Smith’s father, Mark, “but we were basically stonewalled at every point.”

Under the ordinance, employees accrue at least one hour of paid sick and safe time for every 30 hours worked. They can use that time off when they or a member of their family are sick or if they are a victim of domestic abuse.

The provisions are complex and include numerous requirements, including rules about notifying employees about their rights under the ordinance and letting them know how much sick and safe time they have earned. Smith contended that such procedures were not followed by Parks and Recreation and that city staff retaliated against him when he tried to exercise his rights.

Smith said supervisors did not inform the summer aquatics workers about the benefit and failed to explain it as required. Information also was not provided on his and others’ pay stubs. He said he and other workers got extra pay in their final checks for 2017 and later learned it was likely unused earned sick and safe time.

Smith tried to use some sick time in 2018, but said he was denied on the basis he had only accrued 2.93 hours and it was not enough to cover a full shift. He filed the complaint after he was not paid for unused sick leave at the end of the 2018 season.

The class action lawsuit originally included about 230 employees, but the number more than doubled since then.

— Jane McClure

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