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Legislative session to see big push for paid family leave in Minnesota

A coalition of faith groups and small business leaders announced a campaign on Monday to push for a paid family leave bill, one that is likely to resemble a law already passed in seven states. 

Pastor Corinne Freedman Ellis
Pastor Corinne Freedman Ellis, of Macalester Plymouth United Church in St. Paul, offered a Christmas metaphor to argue for a paid leave bill.
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan

During the last two sessions of the Minnesota Legislature, bills were introduced in the House and the Senate to provide up to 12 weeks of paid family and medical leave for all workers through a payroll deduction and employer tax.

Neither bill received a hearing.

As the 2019 Legislature is about to convene, however, the politics around the issue have changed. The governor-elect has made paid leave a top priority for his first year in office, while a newly empowered DFL majority in the House is sympathetic to the issue. Even the GOP chair of a Senate committee reconstituted to take on family issues says she wants to look into the issue.

All of which has given hope to a coalition of faith groups and small business leaders who announced a campaign on Monday to push for a paid leave bill in 2019. The group, Minnesotans for Paid Family Leave, said the draft bill will likely resemble laws passed in seven other U.S. states and Washington, D.C.

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And while the length and size of benefits range by state, the proposal pushed Monday for Minnesota was to have a payroll tax on employers and a payroll deduction from workers go into a pool to reimburse workers up to 80 percent of their weekly pay for 12 weeks. The benefit would top out at $1,000 per week. 

Based on measures in other states, the payroll deduction would range from 0.27 percent to 0.4 percent of wages and be split by the employer and the employee. At the lower rate, that would amount to $1.75 a week for the state’s median worker, according to Minnesotans for Paid Family Leave. 

“As Minnesota, we want to be the leaders to make sure that we’re taking care of each other but we’re already eight behind,” said the Rev. JaNae Bates, the communications director of ISAIAH, the interfaith organization that organized the paid leave group. “We are here not just encouraging them to push it through but celebrating the fact that our legislators realize that this is something that is popular and needed and exciting and simple and urgent.”

Pastor Corinne Freedman Ellis, of Macalester Plymouth United Church in St. Paul, offered a Christmas metaphor to argue for the program’s need. “In this Advent season, when Christians await the birth of a baby who will change the world, too many face uncertainty on how they will take the time they need to bond and recover after the births of their own babies,” she said.

Of the program being proposed, Ellis said, “As a Minnesotan I believe we can do it because we are good neighbors here. We take care of each other.” And she compared the weekly cost per employee as “less than a cup of coffee.”

A priority for the Walz administration

The state of Minnesota, the University of Minnesota, Hennepin County, Minneapolis, St. Paul, Brooklyn Park and other governments give up to six weeks of paid leave to their employees, a benefit they offer without requiring an employee contribution. Some private employers also offer the benefit, a fact cited by elected officials who say it has become an issue in the recruitment and retention of workers.

California, New Jersey, New York  and Rhode Island already have paid leave plans similar to what the leave coalition is suggesting. while Washington, Massachusetts and the District of Columbia will begin programs next year. Hawaii’s legislature commissioned a study of the issue

In addition, the federal Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 law mandates up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave for most workers. While 90 percent of workers have access to those benefits, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that just 16 percent of civilian workers have paid family leave.   

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Last month, at a Women in Business luncheon sponsored by the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce, Lt. Gov.-elect Peggy Flanagan said the incoming administration wants to work with business to craft a program for Minnesota.

“I know that here in Minnesota we have some of the best and brightest minds to figure out how we get this done and how we work together to be sure that our kids, our new infants, those who are adopted and brought into families have an opportunity to get a really solid start,” she said.

Flanagan also said the small- to medium-sized businesses should favor a statewide plan since it will help them offer a benefit desired by younger workers but one that is often only provided by large employers.

On Monday, Flanagan said details of what Gov.-elect Tim Walz will propose are still being crafted. “We believe in common sense family leave policies and they will be a priority of our administration,” she said. “The governor-elect and I have a very clear sense of the needs of working families in Minnesota and paid family and medical leave is something we heard quite a bit about on the campaign trail.

“I think there are ways we can work with employees and employers to come to a solution that works for folks,” she continued. “I think it is good for business.”

Flanagan was co-sponsor of a bill in the 2018 legislative session, House File 1013, that contained details of a program similar to what is offered in other states. “People are ready,” she said. “We have reached a time for the economic security of families and for the predictability of workforce for employers; it is time to come to a real solution on this issue.”

Chamber opposes ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach

Not everyone agrees. The Minnesota Chamber of Commerce said it doesn’t favor a state program. Laura Bordelon, Minnesota Chamber senior vice president for advocacy, said in a statement that employers in Minnesota offer benefits that meet the needs of their workers, and that the group doesn’t believe “a government one-size-fits-all mandate is the best approach.”

“We recognize the interest in enacting a new mandate on extended leave programs,” Bordelon said. “However, a statewide mandate establishing an entirely new administrative system – on top of existing local mandates – could create a catalog of unintended consequences negatively impacting employers’ ability to hire more workers and grow their businesses here in Minnesota. That may be why only six states have discussed and begun implementing these types of mandates.”   

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Sen. Karin Housley will once again chair the Senate committee that will likely get assigned any bills addressing paid leave. The name of that committee has been changed from the Aging and Long Term Care Policy Committee to the Family Care and Aging Committee, which Housley said reflects an interest in looking at issues around child care, leave policies and elder care.

“It is something we do want to look at and I look forward to these proposals,” said the St. Mary’s Point Republican. “The reason we added ‘family care’ to ‘aging’ is there are a lot of issues that are facing our families and paid family leave is one of them.”

Housley said that as a working mother she experienced the issues facing new mothers as well as the strain that comes from caring for elderly parents.

“How can we help working families take care of their kids and not affect their pocket book?” Housley asked. “I want to look at all of the proposals and see what makes the most sense for Minnesota families. That’s the reason for the committee.”

Correction: This story has been updated to show that Hawaii is studying the issue but has not yet implemented a program.